Neuro-linguistic programming is a way of changing someone’s thoughts and behaviors to help achieve desired outcomes for them. It may reduce anxiety and improve overall wellbeing.

The popularity of neuro-linguistic programming or NLP has become widespread since it started in the 1970s. Its uses include treatment of phobias and anxiety disorders and improvement of workplace performance or personal happiness.

This article will explore the theory behind NLP and what evidence there is supporting its practice.

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NLP can be used for personal development, phobias, and anxiety.

NLP uses perceptual, behavioral, and communication techniques to make it easier for people to change their thoughts and actions.

NLP relies on language processing but should not be confused with natural language processing, which shares the same abbreviation.

NLP was developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, who believed it was possible to identify the patterns of thoughts and behaviors of successful individuals and to teach them to others.

Despite a lack of empirical evidence to support it, Bandler and Grinder published two books, The Structure of Magic I and II, and NLP took off. Its popularity was partly due to its versatility in addressing the many diverse issues that people face.

The varying interpretations of NLP make it hard to define. It is founded on the idea that people operate by internal “maps” of the world that they learn through sensory experiences.

NLP tries to detect and modify unconscious biases or limitations of an individual’s map of the world.

NLP is not hypnotherapy. Instead, it operates through the conscious use of language to bring about changes in someone’s thoughts and behavior.

For example, a central feature of NLP is the idea that a person is biased towards one sensory system, known as the preferred representational system or PRS.

Therapists can detect this preference through language. Phrases such as “I see your point” may signal a visual PRS. Or “I hear your point” may signal an auditory PRS.

An NLP practitioner will identify a person’s PRS and base their therapeutic framework around it. The framework could involve rapport-building, information-gathering, and goal-setting with them.

NLP is a broad field of practice. As such, NLP practitioners use many different techniques that include the following:

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One of the techniques of NLP is to attempt to remove negative thoughts and feelings linked to a past event.
  • Anchoring: Turning sensory experiences into triggers for certain emotional states.
  • Rapport: The practitioner tunes into the person by matching their physical behaviors to improve communication and response through empathy.
  • Swish pattern: Changing patterns of behavior or thought to come to a desired instead of an undesired outcome.
  • Visual/kinesthetic dissociation (VKD): Trying to remove negative thoughts and feelings associated with a past event.

NLP is used as a method of personal development through promoting skills, such as self-reflection, confidence, and communication.

Practitioners have applied NLP commercially to achieve work-orientated goals, such as improved productivity or job progression.

More widely, it has been applied as a therapy for psychological disorders, including phobias, depression, generalized anxiety disorders or GAD, and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

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So far, there has not been any rigorous research to prove the effectiveness of NLP.

Determining the effectiveness of NLP is challenging for several reasons.

NLP has not been subject to the same standard of scientific rigor as more established therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT.

The lack of formal regulation and NLP’s commercial value mean that claims of its effectiveness can be anecdotal or supplied by an NLP provider. NLP providers will have a financial interest in the success of NLP, so their evidence is difficult to use.

Furthermore, scientific research on NLP has produced mixed results.

Some studies have found benefits associated with NLP. For example, a study published in the journal Counselling and Psychotherapy Research found psychotherapy patients had improved psychological symptoms and life quality after having NLP compared to a control group.

However, a review published in The British Journal of General Practice of 10 available studies on NLP was less favorable.

It concluded there was little evidence for the effectiveness of NLP in treating health-related conditions, including anxiety disorders, weight management, and substance misuse. This was due to the limited amount and quality of the research studies that were available, rather than evidence that showed NLP did not work.

In 2014, a report by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technology in Health found no clinical evidence for the effectiveness of NLP in the treatment of PTSD, GAD, or depression.

However, a further research review published in 2015 did find NLP therapy to have a positive impact on individuals with social or psychological problems, although the authors said more investigation was needed.

The theoretical basis for NLP has also attracted criticism for lacking evidence-based support.

A paper published in 2009 concluded that after three decades, the theories behind NLP were still not credible, and evidence for its effectiveness was only anecdotal.

A 2010 review paper sought to assess the research findings relating to the theories behind NLP. Of the 33 included studies, only 18 percent were found to support NLP’s underlying theories.

So, despite more than 4 decades of its existence, neither the effectiveness of NLP or the validity of the theories have been clearly demonstrated by solid research.

Also, it is worth noting, that research has mainly been conducted in therapeutic settings, with few studies into the effectiveness of NLP in commercial environments.

Studying how well NLP works has several practical issues as well, adding to the lack of clarity surrounding the subject. For example, it is difficult to directly compare studies given the range of different methods, techniques, and outcomes.

NLP has become very popular over the years. This popularity may have been driven by the fact that practitioners can use it in many different fields and contexts.

However, the broad ideas that NLP is built upon, and the lack of a formal body to monitor its use, mean that the methods and quality of practice can vary considerably. In any case, clear and impartial evidence to support its effectiveness has yet to emerge.

For these reasons, it is possible that good marketing has also contributed to the widespread popularity of NLP, particularly in the commercial sector.