Intro to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) in Therapy

Intro to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) in Therapy

Just like our human way of expression, the mind has a language of its own which we need to understand. Nero-linguistic programming can translate it for us. Not to be confused with Natural Language Processing, NLP is a psychological approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy. It claims that there is a connection between neurological processes (neuro-), language (linguistic) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (programming), and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals in life. 

What is NLP Therapy?

The basic premise of NLP is that we experience the world subjectively, and our consciousness exists either within or outside of our awareness. A person’s map of the world is formed from data received through the senses. This information differs in terms of quality and importance. Each one of us processes experiences using a primary representational system (PRS). An NLP therapist needs to match their client’s PRS so they can access their personal map. This is believed to be possible through cues such as eye movements and other physical actions.  

NLP practitioners work with people to understand their thinking and behavioral patterns, emotional state, and aspirations. By examining their map, they can be assisted in finding and strengthening the skills that serve them best, and in developing new strategies to replace unproductive ones. Overall, this process can help individuals in therapy reach treatment goals. 

NLP and Other Therapies

Supporters claim the approach produces fast and lasting results, while also improving one’s understanding of cognitive and behavioral patterns. Some compare it to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but assert that positive changes may be made in less time. CBT looks to help you make sense of problems you may be experiencing in the moment by using the framework to consciously think of changes you can make, whereas NLP looks to change the underlying patterns or strategies so that the problems don’t reappear.  

Through therapy, we learn how the human mind operates and how we can best use it to achieve our goals or overcome mental health conditions. NLP therapy uses perceptual, behavioral, and communication techniques to make it easier for people to change their thoughts and actions. 

History of NLP

Richard Bandler (information scientist and mathematician) and John Grinder (linguist) created NLP in the 1970s from an idea to model highly successful psychotherapists. They were interested in two things: what makes such therapists special, and in what way this specialty can be transferred to other people. They started by identifying communication patterns, attitudes, and specific thinking characteristics of famous 20th century psychotherapists Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson, and Fritz Perls. As a result, Richard and John developed a set of beliefs, skills, and techniques, now known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming. 

How It Works

Your brain interprets what you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste by using past experiences. This is why you get excited at the thought of going to your favorite vacation spot or wearing your new clothes. However, it can also be problematic. Think about how having a bad encounter with a seemingly nice stranger can hinder you from knowing really good people. You might even miss out on meeting your ‘soulmate’ if you always avoid every unfamiliar face. NLP therapy is designed to help you handle these issues.

Practitioners believe that there are natural hierarchies of learning, communication, and change. NLP’s Logical Levels of Change Model, inspired by Gregory Bateson (anthropologist and social scientist), is helpful in designing an action plan for change.

The Six Logical Levels

  • Purpose and spirituality. “Whom do I serve and for what purpose?” This can be involvement in something larger than yourself, such as religion, ethics, community, or another system. This is the highest level of change.
  • Identity. “Who am I? What do I stand for?” Identity is the person you perceive yourself to be. It includes your responsibilities and the roles you play in life.
  • Beliefs and values. “Why do I have to make these changes?” These are your personal belief system and the issues that matter to you.
  • Capabilities and skills. “How do I make these changes?” These are your abilities and what you can do.
  • Behaviors. “What do I need to change?” Behaviors are the specific actions you perform.
  • Environment. “Where do I need to change?” Your environment is your context or setting, including any other people around you. This is the lowest level of change.

Each logical level’s purpose is to organize and direct the information below it. As a result, making changes in a lower level may cause changes in a higher level. Making a change in a higher level, though, will also result in changes in the lower levels, according to theory.

Believing that you already have the answers to your problems within yourself, NLP intends to help you find those answers by knowing your own mind. When you understand your sense of reality, how you think, and why you behave the way you do, it becomes much easier to come up with solutions. Practitioners assist you in managing your moods or emotions, and changing your thought process, to transform unhealthy behavior. Moreover, emulating others’ successful strategy in resolving similar struggles is essential. Effective communication, action, and modeling are all significant in NLP therapy.

What Is NLP Used For?

This type of therapy has been used in treating low self-esteem, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other psychological issues. It helps improve understanding of cognitive and behavioral patterns, build proper communication between conscious and unconscious mental processes, and also help people increase creativity and problem-solving skills. 

What Are The Techniques of NLP?

As a broad field of practice, NLP’s therapeutic process includes more than just a few techniques. Here ae some common ones:


Like Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning (from the famous experiment where the bell associated with food made the dog salivate by simply hearing it), you associate any desired positive emotional response with a particular phrase or gesture of your choice. For instance, you may touch your chest to become calm, or acquire confidence by saying something that reminds you of a time when you felt truly sure of yourself. This will create a neurological stimulus-response that will trigger the state whenever you do it. If you want to make the response stronger, add another memory (or more) to relive in your mind


During specific situations you find uncomfortable, you mentally separate yourself. Quite similar to an out-of-body experience. You imagine that you’re an observer who can see yourself, not a participant. You can also do double association where you observe yourself observing yourself–this can remove negative emotions in almost any minor situation.   


Some therapists use the opposite of dissociation for certain issues. One is Bulimia (purging after consuming large amounts of food to get rid of extra calories). Because those who suffer from this disorder are immune to vomiting, the therapist guides them into developing a strong negative reaction to it.


Perfect for when you feel down or helpless, this technique helps you transform the meaning of an unfortunate circumstance. For example, thinking of all the things you can do when you’re single instead of dwelling on your breakup. In panic or fear inducing events, reframing helps you clear your head and make responsible decisions.


Therapists subtly mirror clients’ physical behavior to improve communication and response through empathy. Smiling when they smile or crossing arms when they do, creates a quick rapport and makes use of empathy to better guide clients toward their goals. When used with other techniques, this becomes more effective.

Swish Pattern

You visualize regular patterns of behavior or thought and adjust them in order to reach a desired outcome. With the practitioner’s guidance, you may visualize a feeling such as anxiety or insecurity by giving it a shape, sixe, or color. You monitor it as it spirals in its usual direction and once you have a vivid representation, you attempt to spiral it in the opposite direction. 

Failure Into Feedback

A fundamental technique used in conjunction with other strategies. It employs several neuro-linguistic programming concepts to help transform experiences of failure into productive learning experiences. This process attempts to help you alter beliefs that limit capabilities. You learn to see lack of success as feedback instead of failure. 

Future Pacing

Usually done at the end of therapy, future pacing is a type of mental imagery which helps rehearse learned changes and make sure they are applied in reality. You imagine yourself in a situation that triggers your old behavior. For instance, seeing unwashed dishes in the sink. You and your therapist find out how you’ll respond when you face such scenarios now.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming sessions make use of eclectic techniques that are chosen based on the client’s PRS.  

Does It Work for Anxiety?

Yes. NLP is able to reach into the subconscious, which means it’s effective in treating anxiety disorder and phobia. It uses some of the previously discussed techniques to help you learn how to respond differently to triggering situations (Anchoring); identify adaptive behaviors that can replace maladaptive ones (Reframing); disconnect from a past painful experience (Dissociation); change beliefs that hinder your success (Belief Change); and integrate goals in your life to continue to achieve even after therapy (Future Pacing).

Is NLP A Form Of Hypnosis?

Some people find Neuro-Linguistic Programming similar to hypnosis or actually drawn from it. However, they are two separate forms which only share seemingly alike techniques. Whereas NLP makes use of suggestibility to influence a person’s perception by engaging the senses, hypnosis does so by guiding into a state of trance or deep relaxation.

Concerns and Limitations of NLP

NLP can be effective in dealing with various concerns ranging from career-related to mental health ones. Despite that, it has yet to be considered a real therapeutic method at par with others which are already already well-established and proven. Because of empirical evidence, eclectic nature, and lack of regulation in training and certification (practitioners without enough credible experience or background), NLP therapy’s numerous testimonials can’t make up for the scientific rejection and criticism it faces.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming Research

In a 2013 study, researchers investigated whether neuro-linguistic programming’s language and visualization techniques would help children with special education to better prepare for learning in the classroom. They concluded that NLP techniques helped the children develop a positive state of mind conducive to learning. However, they also explained that these were only brief tentative conclusions. The sample also consisted of mere seven children. 

Then, in 2012, researchers tested the claim of practitioners that eye movement is a possible indicator for lie detection. It involved a series of three studies. In the first study, eye movements of participants who were telling the truth or lying didn’t match proposed NLP patterns. In the second study, the researchers told one group about the NLP eye movement hypothesis while the control group had no idea. There was no significant difference between both groups after a lie detection test. In the third study, each group’s eye movements were coded at public press conferences. Again, there was no significant difference in eye movement between them.

A group of researchers conducted a systematic review of NLP’s impact on health in 2012. In this review, they came to a conclusion that although there’s a lack of strong evidence of NLP being ineffective, there’s still little evidence to suggest that its interventions actually improved health. 


NLP therapy focuses on the present and aims for change. It attempts to help people get to where they need to be through altering perceptions, challenging attitudes, and transforming the way they relate to themselves and the world. NLP has become very popular over the years, owing to how practitioners can use it in many different fields and contexts. Moreover, research continues to develop this therapy today, with discoveries still changing and adding to its principles. If you want to try NLP, look for a licensed and well-trained therapist, social worker, or mental health professional. Make sure to choose one who makes you feel safe and comfortable.

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Written by Hannah Grace

A B.S. Psychology graduate who fights both real and imaginary shadows every day with music and words.

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