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Mental Rehearsal: Our Natural VR Training System and How to Use it to Your Advantage

Mental rehearsal is the cognitive or imagined practice of a task or behavior without physical training or movement. It is a technique used to increase the performance of athletes, reduce stress and anxiety, and has been used to relieve or eliminate phobias. To effectively use this technique, you must generate a mental model of a particular real-life situation and evoke the feelings associated with that experience. Once you have immersed yourself in a situation, you can then rehearse and refine your feelings and reactions in a safe and controlled environment—that is, your mind. This mental experience is much like training with a VR simulator as it similarly engages your brain.

Studies show that our brains can vaguely distinguish between a mental model and a real-life experience. Meaning envisioning an experience with sensory detail and emotion stimulates our brain, refines, and strengthens neural pathways as an actual experience would. This fact makes our imagination a potent tool, a dangerous tool if we are unaware of its role in determining our perception of reality, and a fabulous tool when used with intent, care, and emotional intelligence.

Whether we are aware of it, we frequently mentally rehearse events. Many of which lead to self-fulling prophecies. For example, if you are preparing to give a speech and you find yourself becoming nervous, it’s likely because you are mentally rehearsing the event going wrong in some way. You may envision yourself forgetting information, fumbling your words, or people judging your delivery. By playing this undesirable scenario in your mind, you are increasing your chances of behaving just as you envisioned—in this case, forgetting your words and potentially getting some funny looks from your audience. However, if you address your concerns and visualize yourself being prepared, confident, and engaging your audience, you will likely create a more positive outcome.

Another common example of daily mental rehearsal is envisioning a future interaction with another person. It’s not uncommon for us to misinterpret another’s intentions or feelings. When a tone cannot be accurately detected, we may read an email and add a tone based on how we currently feel about them or believe they feel about us. Based on that assumption, we mentally create a scenario in our mind of what they were thinking when they wrote that email, said what they said or did what they did, and based on those assumptions, we run through how we will confront them.

As we play out this interaction in our minds, we may find ourselves becoming defensive based on how we believe they will respond. That said, when we confront them in real life, we may unknowingly engage in the conversation with the same emotions and defensive reactions that we mentally rehearsed, leading the conversation to go very much as we had envisioned it. But what if, instead, we mentally rehearsed with positive intent? Imagine what our interactions with others could be like and how we might alter how we move through life altogether.

Benefits of practicing mental rehearsal with emotional intelligence or a positive mindset:

  • Reduced stress and anxiety

  • Improved mental and physical agility

  • Better able to handle conflict

  • Improved self-confidence

  • Reduce or eliminate phobias

How to Practice Mental Rehearsal:

  • Begin by thinking of a situation where you would like to improve how you think, feel, perform, or respond.

  • Immerse yourself in a mental model of that experience and use all your sensory data.

    • What do you see, hear, smell, feel (physical sensation), or taste?

    • Recreate the scene as best as you can in your mind as if you were there.

    • What feelings and emotions are being drawn into the current moment?

  • Ask yourself:

    • What emotions do I wish to feel?

    • How do I want to respond, react, or perform?

    • What outcome do I want to create? What would I need to do to make that outcome possible?

  • Visualize yourself doing just that, from beginning to end, visualize and generate your desired emotions.

    • See yourself responding as you wish and get clear on the process.

    • How are you combating any unpleasant feelings or obstacles that may present themselves in a real-life situation?

    • What will it take for you to achieve your desired results?

  • Get specific and stay realistic.

For example, simply saying, “I want to remain calm,” isn't detailed enough. How are you going to remain calm? What urges and feelings might you experience that will make staying calm difficult?

Remember, be specific and stay realistic.

When we consistently practice mental rehearsal, we're doing a couple of things:

We are developing our mental muscle memory, which works to rewire our brain and make it easier to react as intended. And we are learning to desensitize ourselves from these intense triggers to be more likely to follow through with our plans instead of reacting purely on impulse.


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