Uses of Imagery Techniques for Olympians and Veterans

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VeteranHandsThe New York Times ran an interesting piece on how Imagery techniques are becoming an important training regimen for many of the premier athletes in the Olympics.  According to Times reporter Christopher Clarey, most Olympic national teams are now staffed with psychologists trained to assist athletes in addressing any mental barriers that may impede an athlete’s performance in a specific routine or event.  The imagining process is more than visualizing a particularly difficult, turn, flip or curve.  According to one US athlete, it allows her to “take in all the senses” of the entire performance by imagining the smell, feelings and sounds of each stage of every routine or event. Psychological training has become so integrated into preparing athletes for the Olympics that the Canadian team was staffed with 8 psychologists for its contingent of 221 athletes, the United States utilized 9 mental health professionals for its 230 athletes, and Norway 3 for their 134 participants.

What is amazing about the process of imagery is that in addition to being an effective tool in preparing for an Olympic event, it is becoming equally effective in addressing difficult life experiences associated with Veterans experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic posttraumatic nightmares. The process is called Imagery Rescripting and Exposure Therapy (IRET) and is a personalized version of a successful imagery rescripting treatment for civilian trauma-related nightmares, adapted to address the needs of the Veteran’s.  It was discovered that the Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapeutic approach had significant results in addressing PTSD in approximately 65% of the veteran’s receiving this type of treatment. It was also noticed that non-fear based emotions such as guilt, shame, and anger were common traits of those veterans who were unsuccessful with Pronged Exposure alone.  Over 75% of the veterans unresponsive to Prolonged Exposure had improved when imagery rescripting (IRET) therapy was added to their treatment plans.

There are some who criticize the amount of focus and money being directed to treatment for military veterans.  What we are learning from those investments, however, are new perspectives and insights into addressing mental health problems.  As with Prolonged Exposure therapy, the VA and DoD recognized that the approach was only effective in 65 out of 100 people.  As a result, they researched the root cause of why veterans were not successful with that process and modified an already existing treatment modality to address the identified issues, which led to successful outcomes in an average of 26 of the remaining 35 veterans.  The therapeutic community for veterans is discovering ways to meet the needs of 91% of the PTSD clients they serve.  It didn’t involve creating new innovative therapeutic approaches.  What they did was identify a treatment approach that was effective with similar life experiences of others dealing with PTSD.  Then they modified existing protocols through listening to clients, observing behaviors, and identifying traits.

Given the results of the recently completed Sochi Olympic games, there may be something the sports psychology community could learn from the VA and DoD’s methodological insights. When the countries were measured by number of athletes per medal, Canada, the United States and Norway finished 12th, 10th and 3rd respectively.  When comparing the number of medals earned by psychologist for the same countries, Norway earned 8.66, Canada attained 3.12 and the United States trailed with 3.11 medals per mental health staff member.  Are there modifications to the current performance imagery approaches that need to be addressed or is investigating the addition of other mental health modalities by event the answer?

On April 2nd Brookhaven is hosting a “Panel Discussion” on other alternative therapeutic approaches in addressing the needs of veterans.  In addition to the experiences of Prolonged Exposure, the panel will include a yoga instructor, members of the Coffee Bunker outreach program to veterans and their families, and members of the Tulsa Veterans Treatment Court.  I encourage all who attend veteran focused events such as this to listen to why each approach exists, the insights of everyone contributing to the discussion, and most of all how each program has adapted to meet the needs of the veterans they serve.

Call 918.625.5188 for more information or to register to attend this event.

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