Stress Management Through NLP
By John C Goodman, MSOD, LCSW, LCSW
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.
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. I ought too." 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.
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.
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 task 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 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 responses to the anticipation of the event or our subjective interpretation of what could happen. This is what I refer to as "What If Syndrome."
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 use 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.
Levels of Logic
We experience stress on different levels. Below I have adapted Robert Dilts' model of the levels of logic to the concept of stress.
Environment: What external events trigger your feelings/reactions of stress? Do you have control over these events? If you don't have control or influence over the situation then all the worry, fear, anxiety in the world will not change them. You need to redirect that energy into something you do have control over like your perception and reaction to the events. What resources does your environment offer to deal with stress? Knowing what options are available can be very empowering and create a sense of control.
Behavior: How do you create your experience of negative stress? Examine your actions, thoughts, and feelings. Become aware of how distorted many of your thoughts may be. Having someone point them out to you may help. Notice the feedback your body offers you (true biofeedback). NLP offers ways to transform your non-resourceful behaviors, thoughts and feelings into resourceful ones, reducing or eliminating stress from your association to that event? Remember a time when your felt relaxed, in control or the way you would like to feel in that situation. Notice what was subjectively different about that experience, e.g. a time when an event triggered motivation and not debilitation. Now move those positive resources into a situation, which in the past you would have felt stressed. Notice how your feelings change, do you see new options, do you feel different now about that event. Take what works well for you in one part of your life and bring it into a part that will benefit from those positive resources. Remember, the more flexibility you have the more options you realize and the more control you have.
Capability: Notice your abilities and resources and use them to your advantage. Not everyone as the ability to create vivid images and mental movies of what could go wrong; to repeatedly find new things to worry about; and the skill to not only anticipate negative outcomes but to internally live them before the event ever occurs. Not everyone can trigger their fight or flight response and their autonomic and sympathetic nervous systems to kick into survival mode in non-life threatening situations. Just imagine what you can do with such powerful skills to feel calm, confident, or in control. For example you could vividly create a movie or picture in your mind of the desired outcome you want and put yourself in that scene. Actually be in that scene, experiencing it fully with all of your senses. Feel how it feels. Notice the difference in your neurology.
BELIEFS AND VALUES: Our beliefs and values are key factors in determining what we allow to cause us stress. This is why one person will feel overwhelmed while another will feel challenged. Our beliefs influence our behaviors/actions and our identity/self. They are the lens and filter that color our world, magnify, minimize, or eliminating certain observations or information in our world. We distort reality to fit our belief system. Examples of distorted thought patterns or NUTs include over generalizing a single incident and assuming it will always happen or be true, thinking in extremes: all or nothing thinking, or over personalizing things, to name but a few. Research shows that beliefs, which increase ones sense of control, both internal and external, reduce stress. The greater the belief you can handle a situation the less negative stress will impact you. Our beliefs can also allow us to view the world with optimism and passion, so why not distort with a positive bias? If we change our beliefs our behaviors will change too.
IDENTITY: Stress is a combination of emotions, beliefs, behaviors, and physical reactions. It is not who you are! Notice how it feels when you say; "I am stress out," "I am overwhelmed," "I am depressed," "I am going crazy." Now add, "I feel," before these statements. The impact feels different doesn't it? "I am" makes it part of your identity. "I feel" keeps it on a behavioral level. When we think and speak on an identity level we associate into it. We also may create self-fulfilling prophecies. Keeping those messages on a feeling level allows us to disassociate from it. It is easier to change behaviors than our identity.
BEYOND IDENTITY/SPIRITUALITY: By turning beyond the limits of the self, within your belief system, whether it is to others or a higher power we many find comfort, inspiration, and strength. Many believe that at this level we are all connected.
Applying NLP to Stress Reduction
Following is an example of how I apply NLP in my clinical practice for stress management:
Creating Instant Relaxation.
First remember an image of a time when you felt the way you would like to feel now. If you have difficulty finding it in your past then create it by vividly recalling a person, picture or a scene from a movie or book, a song, piece of music or sound which represents the way you would like to feel. You may find yourself in a state of peace, relaxation, calm, self-control, contentment, safety, or what ever is most useful for you. You will know when you are there. Notice what happens when you move it closer, make it brighter, bigger, or more vivid. Experiment until you have created an optimal experience. If this representation were a color what color would it be? Notice how you feel when you surround yourself, both inside and out with this color. Experiment and have fun with it. This color is yours to use whenever you desire to feel that way.
Taking Over the Controls.
Now for a moment picture in front of you a scene of a time when you felt a little stressed out. Notice what happens when you move that image closer and make it bigger for a few seconds. Now move it back where it was. Now move it back, even further and notice how it feels. What has happened to the size of it? Make it even smaller now. How is that? Has the distance changed? Do you feel different now? You get the idea.
This Is Only A Test.
Now choose a scene where you felt more stress (knowing you can have that scene disappear if it feels too uncomfortable, just by picturing your resource color, sending the image away or focusing on the positive scene). See how far you can comfortably move that picture away from you. Notice what happens to the size. How do you feel now? Notice what happens when you make it smaller. Do not force the change. Just let it happen. How much further can you move it away from you now? Alternate between moving it further away and shrinking it. If at anytime that image does not appear to fully cooperate with you then try putting a filter or a gel of your resource color between you and the scene. You can actually add the color into the scene by pouring it over the scene, coloring any unpleasant part of the scene, or whatever works for you. Some people find their stress disappears from the scene by adding music to the image. Motivating, calming, or humorous music often works well. You may find you can send what was stress into space or make it so small it disappears. Some people find it turns into something positive and decide to keep the new representation. If you do remove the stress altogether replace it with your resource color.
In Conclusion: Using Your Mind for A Change.
NLP provides many empowering tools for existing optimally in our stressful world. Remember, when you use to think you were stressed and anxious? You use to say to yourself "I am stressed or anxious" now you can realize that you only felt stressed or anxious, it was only a set of thoughts (mental behaviors), feelings (emotional behaviors) and actions (physical behaviors). It is easier to change your behaviors than your identity. Believe me. In coping it is up to you to use your mind for a change, positively.
John C Goodman, MSOD, LCSW, is the president of Center for Internal Change, Inc.. He is a Personal & Professional Coach, Consultant, Psychotherapist, Change Facilitator, Sales, Performance Enhancement Coach, empowering individuals, couples, groups, and organizations. John specialties include: NLP, EMDR, hypnosis, and cognitive technologies. He has a private practice in Glenview, IL 60025, consults, and offers workshop and seminars and is certified in the DiSC profile. John can be contacted at (847) 259-0005 or Email link or www.internalchange.com