Neuro-Linguistic Programming: Does It Help Mental Health?

Neuro-linguistic programming focuses on changing your thoughts to improve your mental health. But can you really banish fear, anxiety, and stress by controlling your thoughts?

Addressing mental health

Americans are tense. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the current mental health crisis. Is it any wonder that so many people are turning to self-help books, personal development, and therapy?

“Going to therapy was the best New Year’s resolution in America,” said Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a Connecticut-based licensed professional counselor and board-certified neurofeedback provider, citing findings from the American Psychological Association study, Stress in America 2020.

But what if you could solve your anxiety, increase your chances of success, or improve your responses to stress by changing the way you think? One psychological theory, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), promises that and more.

However, some have called NLP a pseudoscience. And it doesn’t have the strong research to back it up, like treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on identifying and changing thoughts and behaviors that affect mental health.

What is NLP?

Neuro-linguistic programming was first developed in the 1970s by linguist John Grinder and Richard Bandler, a mathematician and computer scientist. It gained traction in pop culture as a way to control your mind and influence others by mimicking the communication and thinking patterns of successful people.

In a therapeutic setting, NLP is used to help individuals 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 “isn’t something widely taught in counseling graduate programs.”

She says therapists interested in NLP are seeking additional training, and explains that other types of therapy have been developed to treat similar problems, for which there is currently more scientific evidence.

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Commonly used neurolinguistic programming techniques

NLP practitioners use a variety of communication and visualization techniques, including:

  • anchor: Training your mind to arouse certain emotions when seeing or feeling an external object or feeling. For example, if you press your hand in a spot or look at an image when you feel happy, you may be able to change future emotions by pressing that spot or looking at the image.
  • Report: Mimicking speech patterns or physical behavior of others to strengthen a communication bond.
  • Visual/Kinaesthetic Dissociation: A thought exercise in which a past event is reprocessed from a distant, dissociated point of view. (Here’s what you need to know about dissociation.)

“Perception is sort of an anchor for NLP,” explains Capanna-Hodge.

In other words, NLP recognizes that even if two people have the exact same experience, they may interpret it differently.

NLP techniques are intended to help people master their perceptions and thus their interpretations and reactions to situations.

Why search for NLP?

According to the iNLP Center, a training center for NLP practitioners, people are attracted to the philosophy and its techniques for several reasons:

  • Learning to read non-verbal cues, including eye movements
  • Regain control of thoughts and feelings
  • controlling fear
  • Overcoming a phobia
  • Improve public speaking, leadership or communication skills
  • Resolving unwanted behavior and actions in themselves and the people around them

Capanna-Hodge says it’s widely used by coaches and leadership professionals.

It has also been used by a number of trained therapists to treat generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The difference between NLP and traditional therapy

Capanna-Hodge says that traditional psychotherapy typically digs into the past for solutions, while NLP focuses on setting goals for the future.

She says this forward-thinking perspective is making NLP popular among life coaches and personal development leaders.

However, Rockwell says, “Contrary to popular belief, therapy is based on all temporal dimensions – past, present and future. If a therapist draws only from your past experiences, [they’re] missing some crucial things.”

Most therapists, including Capanna-Hodge and Rockwell, use a combination of techniques.

Rockwell’s approaches are mostly rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy and narrative therapy. “Similar to what I understand NLP ascribes, narrative therapy allows clients to ‘retell’ their experiences, enabling them to see future experiences as manageable,” Rockwell says.

Simply put, it helps you reframe negative thinking patterns so you can better address them in the future.

NLP: Brilliant or Bunk Bed?

The jury is still out on how effective NLP is. “Talk therapy and medicine are king in mental health, even if other things, like NLP or EMDR . are [eye movement desensitization and reprocessing]do your research too,” says Capanna-Hodge.

NLP has been studied less extensively than cognitive behavioral therapy or even mental health drugs. On the one hand, this can mean that its effectiveness is underestimated.

On the other hand, researchers may not find it promising enough to spend time and money reviewing 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 against depression, anxiety, or PTSD in adults.

A 2015 review of 12 small studies published in Psychiatry Danubina otherwise suggested. The review concluded that NLP “can hold its own compared to other psychotherapeutic methods.”

Research from 2009 and 2012 also yielded mixed results. The former indicated that NLP participants experienced a better quality of life for up to five months after their therapy sessions, while the latter, a review of 10 studies, suggested that NLP has no effect on clinical conditions at all.

Keep in mind: studies showing the effectiveness of NLP tend to be very small. More robust research is needed to confirm their findings.

Could NLP be for you?

Capanna-Hodge believes that neurolinguistic programming is just one of many useful tools for developing a positive mindset.

“If you feel like something is holding you back, diving into NLP is something I would recommend. It lends itself to positivism. But more than that, it’s broken down and feels manageable,” she says. “That’s not to say that traditional psychotherapies can’t be helpful.”

From talk therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy, psychology is full of research-backed methods to break negative thinking patterns, relieve depression and anxiety, and improve quality of life. (Read 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?

Taking a neurolinguistic programming course or reading a book on NLP techniques can be helpful if you’re looking for a practical guide to achieving your goals.

But if everyday life and work seem like a constant battle, Capanna-Hodge says it’s time to seek professional mental health care.

“No one ever regrets getting therapy,” she says. “It’s always a good thing. If you think you need therapy, 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 such as Capanna-Hodge say it can help people identify and change useless thoughts and communication patterns.

However, research on the effectiveness of NLP is limited. Rockwell recommends seeking therapy techniques that are supported by more data, for example cognitive behavioral therapy, which is also helpful for changing negative thinking patterns.

“Neuro-linguistic programming is not for everyone. No therapy is for everyone,” says Capanna-Hodge. It is important to seek the type of therapy that will meet your mental and emotional needs.

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