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What if a therapy existed that could treat anxiety, phobias, and addiction, make you more confident at work, and improve your relationships? Supporters of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) claim its methods can do just that—and much more. But does it work? Here’s what you should know about this psychological approach to change.
What is neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)?
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a set of techniques that attempt to change the way you think, behave, and communicate (Sturt, 2012). NLP suggests that by modeling the thought and behavioral patterns of successful individuals, you can achieve the same outcomes those individuals have experienced (Karunaratne, 2010).
Psychotherapy: everything you need to know
NLP was developed in the 1970s by co-founders Richard Bandler, a psychology student, and John Grinder, a linguistics professor. Together, they spent several years observing highly successful psychotherapists, identifying these therapists’ effective behavior and language patterns. They hoped that by replicating these patterns, they could achieve similar results (Karunaratne, 2010).
Bandler and Grinder originally developed NLP to improve psychotherapy methods. After publishing their findings in two books—The Structure of Magic I and II—the popularity of NLP in the commercial sector exploded (Sturt, 2012). Today, NLP methods are promoted for mental health conditions, personal development, and business success (Sturt, 2012).
How does NLP work?
To understand the basis of NLP, let’s first break down its name (Karunaratne, 2010):
- Neuro—short for neurology—implies our behavior results from the information we receive from our senses.
- Linguistics refers to language, which helps organize our thoughts and communication.
- Programming acknowledges that we can change our thoughts and behaviors to produce the desired outcome.
The founders of NLP believed that we all have our own “map” or subjective experience of the world. In other words, we all perceive our surroundings, experiences, and interactions in slightly different ways. This depends on the information we receive from our five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. NLP suggests that everyone has a preferred sense or “preferred representational system” (PRS) and that you can identify someone’s PRS based on their eye movements or verbal expressions (Sturt, 2012; Witkowski, 2010).
For example, a visual person might say, “I see what you mean,” while a person who’s more of an auditory thinker might say, “I hear what you’re saying” (Sturt, 2012).
A key component of NLP is that communication will be more effective if you match a person’s PRS. An NLP practitioner attempts to tailor the therapies or exercises they perform with a participant based on their PRS (Sturt, 2012). NLP also teaches business and interpersonal skills that focus on PRS to build rapport with clients and other individuals (Joey, 2015).
Benefits of NLP
Proponents believe NLP techniques can be an effective treatment option for a wide range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, substance abuse, obesity, and chronic pain. There’s even a method that claims to cure phobias in one hour or less (Karunaratne, 2010).
Depression: symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment
Unfortunately, substantial evidence to support the use of NLP is lacking. A 2012 review found that the number of studies using NLP techniques was small and that the quality of these studies was poor. The authors concluded there was little evidence to support the use of NLP for any health outcome (Sturt, 2012).
An extensive marketing campaign has grown NLP’s popularity outside of psychotherapy, and many companies now offer seminars and workshops for personal and business growth (Sturt, 2012; Zaharia, 2015). NLP methods are popular in sales, management, and sports training (Karunaratne, 2010). Companies like IBM, NASA, and the U.S. Olympic teams have all offered their employees NLP training with the hopes of improving outcomes (Witkowski, 2010).
NLP techniques and exercises
Because no standard definition for NLP exists, practitioners may use many different techniques and exercises (Sturt, 2012). Here are just a few common examples:
NLP suggests that effective communication depends on developing rapport—a positive relationship between individuals or groups built on trust and understanding (Wilimzig, 2017).
NLP teaches that effective communicators develop rapport by mirroring certain verbal and non-verbal behaviors. For example, adjusting how quickly you speak, your body language, and the volume of your voice to match that of the other individual can help you form a connection (Wilimzig, 2017).
Reframing is the process of changing your perception or feelings about a particular situation. A classic example is the proverbial viewing of a glass as half-full instead of half-empty (Joey, 2015). An NLP practitioner may encourage you to identify a negative experience or feeling and consider what could be gained instead of focusing on the negativity.
For example, imagine you find yourself stuck in traffic after a long, stressful day at work. It’s easy to become frustrated and focus on how your day just got that much worse. What if, instead, you looked at this as an opportunity to decompress before getting home? Maybe there’s a podcast you’ve meant to catch up on that you wouldn’t otherwise have time to listen to. By reframing the situation, the traffic changes from an annoyance to an opportunity.
The importance of telehealth for mental health care
In NLP, an “anchor” refers to an external stimulus that causes an emotional response.
You likely have anchors already without even realizing it. Is there a particular smell that always makes you think of home or a song that reminds you of a time or place? These would be considered anchors. Proponents of NLP suggest that you can create anchors to produce a certain emotional state (Karunaratne, 2010).
For example, perhaps you want to feel more relaxed during a stressful situation. Here’s an anchoring exercise an NLP practitioner might recommend (Karunaratne, 2010):
- Think of a time when you felt incredibly relaxed.
- Try to relive the experience by recalling as much detail as you can.
- When you start to feel relaxed, perform your anchor. This can be anything you choose, such as making a fist or holding two fingers together.
- You’ve now created an association between making a fist and being relaxed. The hope is that you can perform your anchor in the future during a stressful situation and become relaxed.
Some NLP techniques involve dissociation, which is when you remember an unpleasant or traumatic experience from a different point of view—more as a bystander or observer than actually reliving it yourself. NLP claims this can help treat phobias as well (Karunaratne, 2010).
Some dissociation exercises involve the idea of “floating” out of your body and viewing a traumatic or distressing experience from this distanced view. By recalling the memory from this perspective, NLP claims the negative emotions associated with the experience can be eliminated (Karunaratne, 2010).
Does NLP work?
Despite being around for more than 40 years, there is little evidence to support NLP’s effectiveness. Critics of NLP argue that NLP training courses for practitioners are unregulated, and practitioners may have no formal training in mental health (Zaharia, 2015).
Psychodynamic therapy: could it work for you?
If you’re looking to get control of a mental illness, speak with your healthcare provider. They can discuss your treatment options and will likely recommend treatment with proven benefits, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Receiving an evidence-based treatment will offer you the best chance for success.
- Joey, L., & Yazdanifard, R. (2015). Can neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) be used as contemporary and effective skill for an exceptional manager in an organization? International Journal of Management, Accounting and Economics, 2(5), 457-466. Retrieved from https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.735.9568&rep=rep1&type=pdf
- Karunaratne, M. (2010). Neuro-linguistic programming and application in treatment of phobias. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 16(4), 203–207. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.02.003. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20920803/
- Sturt, J., Ali, S., Robertson, W., Metcalfe, D., Grove, A., Bourne, C., & Bridle, C. (2012). Neurolinguistic programming: a systematic review of the effects on health outcomes. The British Journal of General Practice: The Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 62(604), e757–e764. doi: 10.3399/bjgp12X658287. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23211179/
- Wilimzig, C., & Nielsen, K. (2017). NLP and psychological research: rapport, reframing and eye accessing cues. Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy, 20(79), 25–36. Retrieved from https://jep.ro/images/pdf/cuprins_reviste/79_art_3.pdf
- Witkowski, T. (2010). Thirty-five years of research on neuro-linguistic programming. NLP research data base. State of the art or pseudoscientific decoration? Polish Psychological Bulletin, 41(2), 58-66. doi: 10.2478/v10059-010-0008-0. Retrieved from https://journals.pan.pl/dlibra/publication/114591/edition/99644/content
- Zaharia, C., Reiner, M., & Schütz, P. (2015). Evidence-based neuro linguistic psychotherapy: a meta-analysis. Psychiatria Danubina, 27(4), 355–363. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26609647/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.