Neurolinguistic programming focuses on changing your thoughts to improve your sanity. But can you really banish fear, anxiety and stress by controlling your thoughts?
address mental health
Americans are stressed. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the current mental health crisis. Is it any wonder so many people turn to self-help books, personal development, and therapy?
“Seeking therapy was America’s #1 New Year’s resolution,” says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a Connecticut-based licensed professional counselor and board-certified neurofeedback provider, citing results from the American Psychological Association’s survey, Stress in America 2020
But what if you could fix your anxiety, increase your chances of success, or improve your response to stress by changing the way you think? A psychological theory, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), promises that and more.
However, some have labeled NLP as pseudoscience. And it doesn’t have the strong research to support it, like treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on identifying and changing thoughts and behaviors that affect mental health.
What is NLP?
Neurolinguistic programming was first developed in the 1970s by linguist John Grinder and Richard Bandler, a mathematician and computer scientist. It has gained traction in pop culture to control one’s mind and influence others by mimicking the communication and thought patterns of successful people.
In a therapeutic setting, NLP is used to help people change “perceptions, behavior and communication” and develop a positive mindset that will help them achieve their goals, according to Capanna-Hodge.
Leah Rockwell, licensed professional counselor and founder of Rockwell Wellness Counseling, adds that NLP “is not something that’s commonly taught in counseling’s graduate programs.”
She says therapists interested in NLP are looking for additional training, and explains that there are other types of therapies designed to treat similar issues that currently have more research-backed evidence.
Common neurolinguistic programming techniques
NLP practitioners use a variety of communication and visualization techniques, including:
- anchoring: Train your mind to trigger specific emotions when you see or feel an external object or sensation. For example, if you press a spot on your hand or look at a picture when you feel happy, you may be able to change future emotions by pressing that spot or looking at the picture.
- rapport: Mimicking speech patterns or physical behavior of others to strengthen a communicative bond.
- Visual/kinesthetic dissociation: A thought exercise in which a past event is reprocessed from a detached, dissociated point of view. (Here’s what you should know about dissociation.)
“Awareness is a kind of anchor for NLP,” explains Capanna-Hodge.
In other words, NLP recognizes that even when two people have exactly the same experience, they may interpret it differently.
NLP techniques are designed to help people control their perception and therefore their interpretations and reactions to situations.
Why choose NLP?
According to the iNLP Center, a training center for NLP practitioners, people are drawn to the philosophy and its techniques for a variety of reasons:
- Learning to read non-verbal cues, including eye movements
- Regaining control over thoughts and feelings
- dealing with fear
- Overcome a phobia
- Improving public speaking, leadership or communication skills
- Fix unwanted behaviors and actions in yourself and those around you
Capanna-Hodge says it’s widely used by coaches and leadership professionals.
It has also been used by some trained therapists to treat generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The difference between NLP and traditional therapy
Capanna-Hodge says traditional psychotherapy typically looks to the past for solutions, while NLP focuses on setting goals for the future.
She says this forward-thinking perspective makes NLP popular with life coaches and personal development leaders.
However, Rockwell says, “Contrary to popular belief, therapy is based on all temporal dimensions – past, present and future. When a therapist draws only from your past experiences, [they’re] miss some important things.”
Most therapists, including Capanna-Hodge and Rockwell, use a combination of techniques.
Rockwell’s approaches are typically rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy and narrative therapy. “Similar to what I understand by NLP, narrative therapy allows clients to ‘retell’ their experiences, empowering them to view future experiences as manageable,” says Rockwell.
Simply put, it helps you reframe negative thought patterns so you can better address them in the future.
NLP: Brilliant or nonsense?
How effective NLP is is still unclear. “Talk therapy and medication are the pinnacle of mental health, although other things like NLP or EMDR [eye movement desensitization and reprocessing]also have research,” says Capanna-Hodge.
NLP has been less widely studied than cognitive behavioral therapy or even mental health medication. On the one hand, this could mean that its effectiveness is underestimated.
On the other hand, researchers might not find it promising enough to invest time and money in evaluating it.
What the research says
In its 2014 report on NLP, the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health reviewed seven studies but found no evidence of NLP’s effectiveness for depression, anxiety, or PTSD in adults.
A 2015 review of 12 small studies published in Psychiatry Danubina suggested otherwise. The review concluded that NLP “can hold its own compared to other psychotherapeutic methods”.
Research from 2009 and 2012 also produced mixed results. The former suggested that NLP participants experienced better quality of life up to five months after their therapy sessions, while the latter, a review of 10 studies, indicated that NLP has little impact on clinical condition at all.
Remember: Studies showing the effectiveness of NLP tend to be very small. More robust research is needed to confirm their findings.
Could NLP be helpful for you?
Capanna-Hodge believes that neurolinguistic programming is just one of many helpful tools to develop a positive mindset.
“If you feel like something is holding you back, I would recommend diving into NLP. It lends itself to positivism. But beyond that, it’s broken and feels manageable,” she says. “That’s not to say that traditional psychotherapies can’t be helpful.”
From talk therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy, the field of psychology is full of research-backed methods to break negative thought patterns, alleviate depression and anxiety, and improve quality of life. (Learn how this woman found happiness through the power of positive thinking.)
“The therapist may or may not use NLP techniques,” says Capanna-Hodge. “If you have a psychological problem or trauma, you need trauma-based therapy.”
When to see a professional
If you’re looking for practical guidance on how to achieve your goals, taking a course in neuro-linguistic programming or reading a book on NLP techniques can help.
But when daily life and work feels like a constant struggle, Capanna-Hodge says it’s time to seek professional mental health services.
“No one ever regrets going to therapy,” she says. “It’s always a good thing. If you think you need therapy, then you need it.”
The last word
Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) uses visualization and other self-regulation techniques to help you take control of your mind and, consequently, your actions.
Psychologists like Capanna-Hodge say it can help people identify and change unhelpful thoughts and communication patterns.
Still, research on the effectiveness of NLP is limited. Rockwell recommends looking for therapy techniques that are supported by more data — for example, cognitive behavioral therapy, which is also helpful for changing negative thought patterns.
“Neuro-linguistic programming is not for everyone. No therapy is right for everyone,” says Capanna-Hodge. It’s important to seek the type of therapy that meets your mental and emotional needs.