EMDR: A Breakthrough Technique for Enhancing Performance

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CI, No. 6June, 2001

Ellen I. Carni, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen I. Carni will discuss EMDR at the next MAP Networking Session on Monday, July 23, from 3:30-5:00 P.M. in the 802 Club Room.

Stage fright’s reign of terror may be on the wane for performing artists. A new psychotherapeutic technique, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), has shown that it can not only eliminate performance anxiety but can actually enhance performance.

Consider the dramatic success of one of my recent cases. Eric, 48, a conservatory-trained pianist, suffered from stage fright throughout his career. Although successful, he was so preoccupied with fears about memory slips and other mishaps that the expressive impact of his performance was consistently compromised. After undergoing six years of traditional psychotherapy, he decided to try something new.

Within a dozen 90-minute sessions of EMDR, he changed his entire attitude about performing and came to see each concert as an opportunity to improve and to share the beauty of the music with his audience. His piano coach, stunned by the difference in his performance following the last EMDR session, commented, “I could not believe what I heard…The sky is the limit for you.”

A method that integrates psychology and physiology, EMDR acts on the brain to transform disturbing memories that restrict people’s lives, thereby freeing them to express their full potential. Developed in 1987 by psychologist Francine Shapiro for the treatment of trauma survivors, EMDR has quickly become one of the top remedies for post-traumatic stress. Now practiced worldwide, it is being used effectively with more common conditions such as anxiety and depression and, as in my practice, for enhancing creativity and performance.

The idea behind EMDR is that situations you experience as emotionally painful, traumas, upset your brain’s biochemistry and keep you from mastering them. As a result, the negative feelings you had and irrational beliefs you drew from those experiences remain frozen in your nervous system. For example, traumatic experiences induced by perfectionistic parents and critical teachers may have led you to harbor unnecessary feelings like, “I feel humiliated when I am criticized” or distorted self-perceptions such as, “I am only valuable if I am perfect.”

Over time, you may forget these feelings on a conscious level but they remain locked inside your body. Later, when faced with performance demands, symptoms of distress arise without your awareness of their origins. EMDR “unfreezes” the nervous system and melts down traumas. As painful memories surface and are desensitized, you spontaneously begin to view yourself and the traumatic events in a healthier, more positive way.

The key component of the technique is the stimulation of alternate sides of your brain during the desensitization and reprocessing phase (DR). The practitioner passes his or her hand in front of your field of vision while you follow with side-to-side movements of your eyes (EM’s), thereby sending nerve impulses to either side of your brain.

The actual EMDR protocol follows a more complex format. In brief, you and your practitioner first establish target issues, such as panic onstage; target memories, such as a particularly stressful performance; negative beliefs and feelings, such as “I am not in control…I feel helpless” and positive goals, such as “I am in control and feel relaxed.” During desensitization and reprocessing, you think of the targets, then let your mind wander as your practitioner stimulates alternate sides of your brain. Resting between sets of brain stimulation, you report your experiences.

In general, experiences first move to memories, thoughts, feelings and images related to the targets. You may remember long-buried events with their original impact. By reliving past events with brain stimulation, you rid them of their disturbing power and allow in a flow of increasingly positive and hopeful thoughts, feelings, images and anticipated events that your practitioner “installs” with more sets of brain stimulation.

The following example is taken from my practice: A female pianist recovered a childhood memory during processing in which she had asked for a particular doll for Christmas, only to be given a different doll. She re-experienced the sadness and frustration of that experience. This memory was followed by other memories in which her parents did not respond to her communications or give her emotional support during times of stress.

She made the connection that, when she is onstage, she believes that her audience does not hear what she is trying to communicate through the music. “I tried and tried to communicate. I wasn’t effective. Then I gave up…With the music [I try to communicate, then] I lose my focus. I know it’s irrational.” She saw herself hunched over the piano in a black cloud from which no communication could exit. Her arms and hands felt heavy. Then, everything went black.

From that point on, there was a shift to positive images. She moved from the cloud into a protective bubble from which she could communicate with confidence. The bubble felt “like home,” a good home. Her arms and hands felt lighter. For the first time, she was able to “suspend disbelief” about her relationship with her audience: “I can feel people listening to me… Who am I to say they are not enjoying it?… That’s good enough reason to play.” She saw herself standing back, allowing the presence of the music to take over. “I am no longer self-conscious.” After her next concert, she reported feeling empowered. “There were no bad voices at all – and no slips.” She felt ready to take on her next concert without fear.

For more information on EMDR contact the EMDR Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., at (831) 372-3900, or the EMDRIA Association in Austin, Texas, at (512) 452-5200,

Dr. Ellen I. Carni is a licensed psychologist committed to an integrated approach to healing. Her Manhattan-based practice includes both performing and other creative artists. Dr. Carni also conducts psychoeducational workshops and writes for local and national publications. She received her education at New York University, City University and Columbia University. Trained in a variety of treatment modalities, she holds postdoctoral certificates in psychoanalysis and EMDR. Dr. Carni can be reached at (212) 721-2429 or