What is neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)?

In this article, I am going to explain what neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is, its origins, its influences, the different ways it can be applied and finally how specifically it can be used for phobias. There are many different applications of NLP but here I will specifically focus mainly on how it helps with phobias and on the particular technique known as The Swish Pattern. 


NLP is at its core a form of interpersonal and communication training, as well as understanding and hopefully solving a specific problem. It can also help a person realise what thinking style and sense they tend to use and how beyond the issue they can apply it to wider life hopefully to their benefit.

It originated from the work of Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the mid-1970s. Richard Bandler was a Masters level student at Santa Cruz University and John Grinder was a professor of Linguistics, together they studied excellent communicators who could get through to very ill or challenging people when others had struggled to progress.

They were highly influenced in their work by Milton Erickson (a psychiatrist, psychologist and medical doctor who applied hypnosis) Virginia Satir (a family therapist) and Fritz Pearls (the founder of Gestalt Therapy). In the case of Erickson, they have modelled some of the language he used to create language patterns, which can put individuals into a light trance and subsequently open to suggestion. Virginia Satir in her work as a family therapist paid close attention not only to the interactions between members of the family but to the internal images that each person held in their mind of that person. 

In the work of Fritz Perls, some of the principles of Gestalt Therapy such as the importance of sensory experience as well as nonverbal cues and how people communicate messages with gestures would in addition to the other elements mentioned go on to contribute to what today we know as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

In amalgamating these different approaches, Bandler and Grinder concluded that we construct our own personal map of the world through our senses - sight, sound, taste, touch and smell - and, in turn, our thinking filters these experiences through deleting, distorting or generalising. They surmised that we have one predominant sense and that in itself can influence how we speak.

One of the foundations of NLP is that in order to achieve maximum potential as human beings we can learn to match and model the verbal and non-verbal communication styles of others, we can tune into their view of the world and see things as that person does, as well as being more self-aware which would enhance all relationships in our life personal and professional. I suppose this was what the Scottish Poet Robert Burns alluded to when he said:

Oh wad some pow'r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as other's see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us, and foolish notion

This has led NLP to become a method of striving for the best performance in a person's industry or hobby as well as therapeutically in the more problematic areas of life. It can be found being practised frequently in sales, management roles, and in sports.

In my role as a hypnotherapist, probably the most common problem a person comes to me for is phobias. In the next part of the article, I will explain how NLP can be a useful tool in helping someone overcome this type of problem.

So, what is a phobia? Well, in essence, it is an acquired conditioned response based on a single learning experience. This means basically that a person can make a negative association with something based on a single experience and then irrationally predict that all subsequent experiences will be similar. In my mind sometimes even the potential thought of the phobic experience can bring about anxiety. 

In employing an NLP approach, I will first try to ascertain from the client whether the phobia is seen, felt or heard - what is the dominant sense when they think of it? Then my main goal with my client is to change the person's perspective when they view that memory, in doing this the emotional response will also change. 

Fear is a powerful emotion and naturally, due to survival instincts in our brain, we want to move away and avoid the fearful situation when confronted with it, but if you can get the individual to disassociate from it and instead of viewing it, see yourself as an observer viewing yourself viewing it this how another technique called the Fast Phobia Model works

The formal technique I frequently use is called the Swish Pattern and primarily involves replacing an unwanted fearful provoking thought of a situation with a positive one. It sometimes can be difficult to apply if a person is unsure of their triggers and the connections between the thought and their emotional response, in this situation a hypnotic approach may be more beneficial as your unconscious mind will know. 

However, in applying Swish, I get my client to visualise the phobic situation they would like to change, then create a picture of themselves free from the problem. In your relaxed and happier state, change the size and intensity of this image, then bring back the old picture and fully associate it in 3D. Then bring in the other more positive desired image in a corner like a photo on the wall and shrink the state you are associated in and grey out and darken it whilst at the same time expanding and increasing the desired you.

It is important to do this quickly and to repeat it a number of times, as the brain processes information quickly. To finish, I often like to get the person to be future-focused and to be guided towards a positive happy future free from it and how life-enhancing this will be. 

I hope this article has helped clarify what NLP is and how it can be applied to many things but specifically phobias, and how quickly it can work due to the rapid way we process information often unconsciously. It is a fast-growing form of psychotherapy and anything that makes us more self-aware and aware of the thoughts and feelings of those around us can only be beneficial in all aspects of life. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Glasgow G3 & Troon KA10
Written by Iain Lawrence, (BA) Dip Hyp
Glasgow G3 & Troon KA10

My name is Iain Lawrence I am a Hypnotherapist Based in South Lanarkshire and South Ayrshire. I am a caring empathetic practitioner and I have experience of a wide range of issues from Phobias to Anxiety. I use Hypnotherapy, Emotional Freedom Therapy and NLP Neuro Linguistic Programming in my practice. I believe change happens starting small.

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