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NLP for Stress Management

By John C Goodman, MSOD, MSW


Close your eyes for a moment and imagine it is April 14th; you just realized your taxes are not done, and your computer just crashed with no backup. Your boss is on the phone and wants to see you in his office now. As you vividly create these images in your mind notice how you feel. Become aware of your body, your breathing, and your heart rate. How does your chest and stomach feel? Now imagine crossing the street as a truck comes speeding down on you from nowhere, horn blaring and bigger than life. Notice your internal experience. At times these reactions can be resourceful and life-saving, but at other times they can be very damaging. The process your mind goes through in both cases is based on the most positive of intentions: survival. Fear is one of the most powerful motivators, yet it is also one of the most damaging stressors in life. It can be both resourceful and non-resourceful.

Fight or Flight

Many people feel stuck, overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, panicked due to the stresses they experience in daily life. If we feel overwhelmed or unable to cope our body goes into a fight or flight response. Yet often fighting or fleeing are not realistic or appropriate options. Many people freeze up, like a deer caught in a car’s headlights. I believe this is an internalized version of fight or flight. We are fleeing inside ourselves and/or fighting within ourselves.

Internal Conflict

How much time do you spend worrying, feeling guilty, and beating yourself up? Is your mind saying one thing while your body is in clear disagreement (ulcers, migraines, high blood pressure, backaches, or panic attacks)? Do you have those internal arguing voices saying such things as: “I must do but I should do. I should not have done it. I ought to.” Clearly, there is no positive correlation between the amount of time spent on or the intensity of worrying or feeling guilty and achieving your desired outcomes. On the contrary, the energy that could be used to complete a task is being redirect away from action into inaction. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have our various parts working together as a “united front” through life’s challenges? NLP offers the skills to do just that.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming

NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), among other things, is the study of the structure of subjective experience, the modeling of excellence, and the art of modeling. NLP’s creators, Richard Bandler and John Grinder studied and modeled people they felt represented excellence in various areas. They then developed strategies that could be taught to others. NLP provides a number of excellent tools and concepts to empower individuals to cope with or change non-resourceful or negative stress to resourceful or positive resources. With NLP you can change overwhelming, immobilizing feelings into powerful motivating forces.

Resourceful Stress

While this article will focus on stress in its non-resourceful state, it is important to acknowledge the benefits of it. Resourceful stress moves us to act in ways that promote our survival and well-being, such as getting out of dangerous situations and motivating us to complete tasks e.g. income taxes. How many of us thrive on the pressure of having deadlines to meet, putting things off until the last minute? We are creating our own state of positive stress. We create (often unconsciously) situations where we are under pressure to move away from a negative outcome, such as being late finishing a project and the resulting consequences.

Non-Resourceful Stress

Non-resourceful stress is the stress, which damages us, physically, emotionally, and mentally. These stressors differ from person to person, as do our responses to them. Most often it is the anticipation of the event that creates stress, not the event itself. The damage does not come from the event causing the stress, but rather from how our mind/body responds to the anticipation of the event or our subjective interpretation of what could happen. This is what I refer to as “What If Syndrome.”

Internal Dialog

Another form of non-resourceful stress comes from those internal and at times external voices, which tell us, we “should have” “shouldn’t have” “ought to” etc Whether we “should” upon ourselves, or let others “should” upon us, we often find ourselves knee-deep in “should.” Much like with the “What If Syndrome,” being a “Should-head” does not only take up a lot of time and energy but in some cases totally immobilizes us from taking any action at all. This is often described as feeling overwhelmed or stuck and can cause us to isolate, withdraw, or avoid situations. I refer to this type of thinking as NUTs (negative useless thoughts).

Strategies for Negative Stress

When using NLP for stress management I have found it useful to examine the following areas to learn peoples’ strategies for negative stress:

  • The triggering event, which may or may not have occurred yet.
  • The subjective interpretation or perception of the event. This is subjectively filtered by our senses and interpreted by our beliefs.
  • The mind/body reaction (cognitive, emotional, and physical) to the event.

Stay tuned for parts two and three about the “Levels of Logic and Stress” and “Appling NLP to Stress Management.”