Accidentally Self Administering EMDR in a Video Game

Hear me out on this one. This may sound ridiculous, but I believe that racing around certain tracks in the modern Formula One video games has several times delivered for me therapeutic benefits that match exactly those described by clients undergoing formal Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. The benefits were entirely unintended but immediately noticeable and it was not until I learned about EMDR that I was able to understand what had happened.

Joining the dots together I believe that racing around a specific track on the games demands lateral eye movements that closely enough mimic those undertaken in formal EMDR to deliver the same therapeutic benefits when unpleasant emotions and memories are being held in the conscious mind. This is not a fluke as I have observed it several times now. Let me explain in more detail below.

Background Story

This story goes back a couple of years to the autumn of 2015, and technically speaking a couple of years even before that. Around November time there was an uncomfortable position I was in regarding work, where I did not want to fulfill  a certain obligation that was expected of me.

It would have required attending something on my day off, being around people I didn’t like, listening to things I didn’t want to and incurring travel expenses for doing so, not to mention wasting most of my day off. So I refused; I didn’t go to the meeting.

Thats the short version. It sounds so easy now to just say “I didn’t attend the meeting”. The reality at the time is that I fretted and fussed over the decision the closer the day came, worrying over what the consequences might be. I am not one who is prone to rebelling or breaking rules or standing up to authority; I normally fall into line and don’t like to cause a fuss or let people down.

Added to this was the fact that the upper level manager who I was effectively snubbing by not attending this meeting was someone with whom I had had a difficult relationship with from the past because of his mistreatment of me. Betrayals of trust and confidence as well as a belligerent “hard” management style had left me deeply distrustful of him but also scared of potential consequences of not falling into line.

All of which combined to basically make me a worrying wreck on this day off when I did not attend. The absurdity of the situation did not escape me even at the time though. I asked myself “Was it really worth it? This is meant to be your day off and you are fretting and fussing about what’s going to happen now you’ve not shown up. It’s ruined your day; you might as well have just gone!”

Turns out it really was worth it, though, in a way I only fully started to piece together a couple of years later. I was already familiar with “that place inside” that worrying and rumination could put me in, when the mind starts to conjure up all the “what ifs” about all the scenarios that might happen or couple happen. In Minfulness terms it is a deviation from the here and now into the addictive but totally useless speculation of “what ifs” (future) and “if onlys” (past).

As mindfulness researcher Mark Williams points out, there is nothing that is so bad in this world that the way we think about it can’t make it even worse. And my mind was most definitely making this issue worse. Ten times worse. All the different scenarios – what he’d say, what I’d say back, how I’d respond to his counter response. It was ridiculous, creating these elaborate soap operas in my mind. And part of me knew this at the time but couldn’t stop doing it.

In summary, because this particular manager was significant to me (in a bad way) because of the way he had mistreated me in the past, the thought of resisting his authority brought up all the baggage that surrounded him for me and put me back into “that place inside” that he had put me into before by mistreating me. It was all live again inside me; visceral feelings of fear, mistrust, “what ifs”, anger, ego and so on.

Marina Bay Street Circuit Singapore

A fluke decision to race around the beautiful Marina Bay Street Circuit on the Formula 1 video game to take my mind off things had unintended beneficial side effects (Image credit: Moriakimitsuru, Flickr)

How I Responded

In the midst of all this ridiculous rumination, I decided that I had to just try to do something “fun”, seeing as this was meant to be my day off and instead of enjoying my leisure time I had used it to tie myself in the most ridiculous mental knots. So I put the latest version of the Formula 1 video game at the time onto my PS4 games console and set up a race around the Singapore track.

For those not familiar to Formula 1, this is an extremely picturesque but tight, complex and difficult street circuit, with lots of 90 degree left and right turns, with walls and barriers always close by. Basically, it is very difficult to complete a race around there without screwing up and crashing into the wall, and with my perfectionistic traits, I don’t like screwing up, even if it is just a video game and pixels on a screen. A video of the lap is embedded below:

A Lap of the Singapore Street Circuit on the Formula 1 video game

As you can imagine, to complete a long 31 lap race here without crashing requires a lot of skill and concentration, which can give a distressed, preoccupied mind somewhere else to be. I duly completed a 31 lap race here, which takes just under an hour, and upon completion I noticed something remarkable.

All that horrible stress inside, that worrying, the rumination, the fear, had not only gone but had been completely transformed into a deep inner feeling of peace and calm, like I had NEVER experienced before. Real inner satisfaction and contentment. All the mental “baggage” had seemingly gone, dissolved, around this man who had so bothered me.

I no longer feared him or what “might” happen next time I see him; I just felt a deep inner peace. I was able to be present and enjoy myself again. I didn’t know how all of this just happened, but I definitely knew something remarkable had just happened internally and was curious about it.

How I Interpreted It At The Time

I broached the subject the next time I saw my therapist at the time and he suggested playing the game was basically a form of mindfulness, giving my preoccupied mind something else to focus on, thereby helping me to be more present in the moment. It seemed like a plausable explanation and lacking any other framework with which to interpret the experience, I settled on that theory for now.

I couldn’t help but notice though, that the sense of inner peace and calm it gave me was far deeper than anything else mindfulness had ever done for me. And that is not to knock mindfulness, but it is generally acknowledged to be a very slow, gradual process. This felt like a turbo charged form of mindfulness, far deeper and faster acting than any meditation exercises I had tried.

But as I was not familiar with EMDR at that point, I just enjoyed the internal changes it provoked and clocked it up as an interesting mindfulness “experience” and put it to the back of my mind for now. I still had unanswered questions about this whole experience though:

  • The internal changes this experience provoked were far more powerful and rapid then I had ever experienced mindfulness to be.
  • Moreover, the changes were rapid and permanent. I was now no longer afraid of this person at all and could hold my own with him on a regular basis.
  • Mindfulness by contrast can induce a temporary state of calm but to reach a state of fully “letting go” of something is a very drawn out gradual process often requiring months or years of meditation. It certainly doesn’t happen within one hour.
  • Why was it driving around this particular circuit only that seemed to produce these positive effects? It did not work for any other circuits; only this circuit in this and subsequent experiences.
  • Similarly, why did driving around this circuit at this particular time produce these positive internal changes. I had raced that track many times before with no positive or negative internal changes.

All these questions would later be answered as I learnt more about EMDR and how it works.

History Repeats a Few Years Later

Fast forward to the summer of 2018, and events conspired for me to unwittingly replicate this experience/experiment. I had just had a nasty fallout with a long standing friend. The kind that does leave you upset as you have known each other a long time. A day or so after the bust up, it was still bothering me.

I was back in “that place inside” again, going back over the event, replaying it. Should have said this, should have done that. All very familiar and non productive, but predictable. It is unfortunately what the mind does for a lot of people. Rumination is a constant problem for people who struggle to let go of the past or fret about the future.

Out of chance I had a league race that evening on the newest F1 game at the time, at…. guess where? The same Singapore track I had raced on the first time! I was still preoccupied with what had happened the day before but decided to race anyway, and after an hour of concentration, a few crashes and perseverance, the same remarkable thing happened.

I felt the same deep inner feeling of peace and contentment I had felt two and a half years earlier. All the rumination, unpleasantness, stress had again been transformed onto a deep inner calm and peace. Even though the incident had only happened 24 hours earlier, it no longer bothered me nearly as much; I felt like I had digested it and moved on already. I felt more internally distant from it; whereas before it would have bothered me for days or more, now it was just another experience.

This time I immediately noticed the experience and connected it with the experience of late 2015. Unlink the first time I was now aware of EMDR as another paradigm with which to interpret this and I started to join the dots. What was it about this game that had so induced this noticeable state of calm inside me.

More precisely, what was it about this particular Singapore track that seemed to do it for me both times? Not just any track, but this specific track. As far as I have noticed, no other track on the games has had this amazing effect. I have raced on other tracks when in a distressed or preoccupied state and it has done nothing for me.

The EMDR Interpretation

I believe I now have an explanation for why, in terms of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR. This may seem ridiculous for some people, but a lot of people will pre-judge EMDR anyway because of its unusual methodology despite all the good it has done for so many people. It is not about pre-judgement for me but about following the truth where it leads, no matter how bizarre it may seem at first.

I believe that the eye movements that are involved in racing around this Singapore track replicate those carried out in formal EDMR closely enough that they can produce similar effects to EMDR if practiced for a long enough period of time. I say that because of the specific layout of this track, which I think explains why it is this particular circuit only and not just any random circuit that produced such beneficial effects. I will embed a map of the circuit to show this.

Map of the Marina Bay Street Circuit in Singapore

Singapore Street Circuit Map

A Map of the Singapore Street Circuit. Notice there are quite a few sections which involved several left and right hand corners in quick succession.

There are a number of sections of this track where there are left-right-left combinations of corners in quick succession. And presumably to drive around this circuit accurately and properly, the player must move their eyes laterally from left to right and back again to track the movement of the car, provided the screen they are playing on is big enough.

I suggest that because of the layout, this is happening enough times round a single lap that if you drive a sufficient number of laps, your eye movements will somewhat replicate what happens during formal EMDR.

Therefore if you have something “live” and visceral going on inside you at the time you are doing this, then the eye movements involved will serve to work with and digest the experience and emotions in the same way that formal EMDR therapy would. Your race around the Singapore Street Circuit becomes a surrogate form of EMDR!

A Dual Focus of Attention

There is now no doubt in my mind that the EMDR framework fully explains what happened to me in both experiences. An important caveat is that there has to be some visceral, troublesome phenomena going on inside you at the time. Just racing around this track any old time will not be therapeutic when there is nothing troublesome or distressing at the forefront of your consciousness.

There has to be something “live” to work with and in my cases life events conspired to bring “that place inside” to the center of my awareness so it could then be worked on and digested with the eye movements. A purely external or a purely internal focus of attention is not therapeutic in EMDR terms; a dual focus of attention is needed to digest memories in the EMDR framework.

In my experience fate conspired in such as way that live “stuff” was created inside me which I then unwittingly “caught” and processed with my gaming while it was still live enough to work with. I fluked my way to an accidentally self administered EMDR session!

This part of tapping people in neurologically to psychological baggage surrounding people or events is normally what should be done by a therapist. Nevertheless it is just a part of life that events can sometimes put us in an unpleasant place psychologically, maybe tapping us back into a past trauma or class of negative experience, and a therapist cannot always be there to help us.

I believe I had a few such experiences, and lucked my way into a solution that acted, unbeknownst to me at the time, as a rudimentary form of EMDR. As time passed I started to ask more questions and join some dots, which led to me writing this article and ultimately creating this website. Despite it’s well established therapeutic benefits it is still not really a mainstream paradigm amongst therapists or the general population so it is important to disperse information about the topic.

Basically, anyone who has unpleasant “stuff” and baggage sitting inside them psychologically that they are struggling to fully process and move on from – from horrendous “Big T” traumas right down to “Small T” unpleasant life events – has the potential to benefit from EMDR.

The EMDR methodology specifically stimulates the mind to process and “digest” unpleasant troublesome past memories and feelings, and it has received widespread acclaim from both practitioners and patients alike. Which is why we have created this site, to try and disperse information and spread the word about this form of psychotherapy to as many people as possible who could benefit from it.

EMDR Books

Francine Shapiro – Getting Past Your Past

Francine Shapiro – EMDR – The Breakthrough Therapy

See our Resources Page for links to these and other good books on EMDR.

Click here for further EMDR resources and to find a therapist in your local country and region.


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