What is NLP (and does it really help with anxiety and confidence issues)?

·7 min read
Photo credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images
Photo credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

With mental health being spoken about more openly than ever before, more of us are actively seeking help for a range of issues, from anxiety to tackling past traumas. But when it comes to treatment, there's no one size fits all approach – there are a tonne of different options out there, including medication and talking therapies.

One of the newer options available, which is growing in popularity, is Neuro-Linguistic Programming (or NLP, as it's more commonly known). NLP is also a technique billed as being helpful for those with confidence issues, anybody looking to change their habits or better understand themselves. Many business coaches use it with clients too.

As this particular form of psychotherapy isn't as well known as the likes of, say, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), we asked Anna Williamson, an author, life coach and Master NLP Practitioner, to explain exactly what NLP is and how it works.

However, before embarking on NLP, it's very important to note that it doesn't come without controversies and many claim it is a pseudoscience, due to a lack of scientific evidence to back it up. In this piece, we also explore that side of NLP. If you're feeling in need of mental health support, it's always advised that you speak to your doctor who can walk you through a range of options, or contact mental health charity Mind for more information and a listening ear.

What is NLP and how does it work?

"Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a form of psychotherapy, the practice of understanding how people organise their thinking, feeling, language and behaviours to produce the results they do," explains Williamson. The practice is usually undertaken by a trained coach who works with a client to identify, understand and, where necessary, change behaviours and mindset, she adds. "NLP is essentially a process of understanding how your mind works. It's the study and practice of excellent communication within yourself and with others, with the aim of reaching personal and/or professional goals."

Photo credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images
Photo credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY - Getty Images

Williamson notes that these goals can be based on anything that needs changing for the positive. "They can be anything that's holding someone back, a negative or unhelpful state of mind that needs to be challenged, addressed and re-programmed," she explains. NLP, Williamson adds, works by identifying core values and beliefs, showing someone how to get where they want to go, and overcoming any barriers.

"Changing language patterns and behaviours to get a more positive outcome, and essentially helping the client feel empowered and mentally stronger is a huge part of NLP and why someone might seek a coach or practitioner," Williamson says. She adds that NLP also focuses on the importance of our five senses and how they play a fundamental part in how we interpret everything in our life.

What is NLP used for?

NLP can be used for a variety of reasons, says Williamson, not only as a method to potentially help with mental health problems, such as anxiety, but for those interested in personal development. "Improving in business and work performance are also highly sought after reasons an NLP coach is drafted in," she adds.

Who does NLP work best on?

"Essentially anyone can benefit from NLP, it's about getting to know yourself and your mind better, changing thoughts and behaviours, and it can have some excellent results," claims Williamson. However, before embarking on any type of therapy, it's always advised that you thoroughly research your therapist, coach or practitioner first – don't be afraid to ask for evidence of their qualifications and arrange initial meetings with multiple people, until you find the right fit for you.

What are some common NLP techniques?

"There are hundreds of NLP techniques that can help a person identify what they want and need to change to enhance their life and situation," Williamson explains. She adds that some of her go-to favourites include: "anchoring" (creating and using a stimulus to help a client get into a positive desired state), "association and disassociation" (where someone is encouraged to try out different first and third person perspectives, to change behaviours and address any internal challenges), and "reframing", which she describes as a powerful tool in helping someone view a situation, or feeling or behaviour in a different, more manageable way.

How new is NLP in comparison to more traditional types of therapy?

"NLP was devised and developed in the 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder," says Williamson. "When compared to other therapies, NLP is considered one of the newer kids on the block, with CBT often deemed a more traditional psychological therapy," Williamson continues. "While CBT can be highly effective in bringing about demonstrable change for a patient, people can prefer NLP for its slightly different, more in depth, approach."

Photo credit: Shana Novak - Getty Images
Photo credit: Shana Novak - Getty Images

Why do some view NLP as controversial?

In a nutshell, scientific evidence supporting claims made by NLP advocates is scarce. It's also been discredited as a pseudoscience. During a 2006 review, which saw 101 mental health professionals rate various therapies from least to most credible, NLP fared poorly, notes chartered psychologist Dr Rob Yeung in a blog post he wrote on the subject. "NLP was rated at 3.87 out of 5," he says. "In fact, it was rated as more discredited than other therapies such as psychotherapy for the treatment of penis envy (which received a marginally lower, better score of 3.52)."

Yeung added that University of Sydney researcher Anthony Grant noted many researchers "argue that NLP is not evidence-based (i.e. there is little peer-reviewed evidence to show that NLP actually works). The other side might then respond that practitioners know it works because they have personally witnessed significant change in NLP clients."

He continued, "Researchers and qualified psychologists are mostly damning about NLP." In a 2019 paper published in International Coaching Psychology Review, a group of experts wrote: 'there are many critics of NLP who view NLP as variably a pseudoscience, pop psychology or even a cult, with no evidence base for its effectiveness', and Yeung also notes, after scouring 90 articles on the topic of NLP, researchers concluded: "In summary, there are no empirical studies that offer evidence for the effectiveness of coaching based solely on NLP tools and techniques."

A check online shows some courses suggest you can achieve NLP Master Practitioner status in 200 hours of self study. By way of comparison, the British Psychological Society website states that becoming a chartered psychologist usually requires both an undergraduate degree and a doctorate in psychology. A doctorate in psychology alone typically requires three years of full-time research, equating to over 4000 hours of time on the subject.

To that note, Williamson says, "There's certainly a valid argument that professional training and accreditation associated with NLP coaches can go unregulated within the industry. Much like professional counsellors and other therapists, it all depends on the level of training and professional practice, as well as client-coach rapport that I believe to be key in the success of the therapy." She adds that research is constantly being updated and many more professionals in the psychology field are starting to view NLP and as a credible alternative to the NHS approved CBT.

If you're looking for support with or information about mental health, please call Mind's helpline on 0300 123 3393 or email info@mind.org.uk.

For information about the various types of therapy available on the NHS, visit the website or book an appointment with your GP to discuss the options available to you.

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