The Power of Neuro-Linguistic Programming to Transform Trauma

Calm and confidentHis name was Zack. Zack was a 150-pound, 2-year-old Newfoundland dog—my buddy. Wild at heart—at best only ever semi-domesticated—he loved nothing more than to escape from our three-quarters-of-an-acre fenced yard and head toward the hundreds of acres of forest and trails that lay just up the road from our house.

I came home from work late one afternoon and discovered Zack was gone. I parked my car, got out, and then heard the screech of brakes, a loud, dull thud, and one heart-breaking yelp. I ran up the road to the crest of the hill and saw that my worst fears had come true. Lying in the road— illuminated by the car’s headlights—was Zack, tongue hanging out from the side of his open and bleeding mouth, his bear-like chest still. He was dead, killed by a car traveling over the crest of the hill, by a driver who could not see him until it was too late. I felt devastated.

For the next several weeks, as I traveled this same road, each time I came over the crest of the hill where this tragedy had occurred, the image of Zack’s lifeless body, lying in the road, involuntarily came to mind accompanied by all the associated feelings of grief. The sight of the crest of the hill had become a trigger for activating painful memories.

A couple of months later, I attended a weekend workshop focused on something called neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP for short. NLP is the study of how thought and language impact and influence personal experience.

During the NLP training, the two facilitators—Rick and Ricky—asked that we each find a partner to complete an exercise. In this exercise, one person was to act as the “client” and the other as the “therapist.” The client was directed to pick a memory that was still bothering him or her. The therapist was directed to guide the client through the steps of an NLP procedure called the “swish pattern.”

We were told that when using the swish pattern, it was not necessary for the client to reveal the contents of his or her memory to the therapist. This meant the entire process could be completed without the therapist even knowing the client’s issue.

For this exercise, I opted to play the role of client. As the “client,” here are the instructions I received and followed:

  1. Select a specific “unpleasant memory” you want to change.
  2. Close your eyes and mentally re-create that unpleasant memory to the best of your ability. Imagine it in detail as if it was happening to you now. Be in the experience and see, hear, and feel what you would if it were happening now. (Note: for this exercise I recalled coming to the crest of the hill, finding Zack dead, and feeling devastated.) This original unpleasant memory will soon become the cue for triggering a new “pleasant substitute memory.”
  3. Next, create an alternative mental image of what you would prefer to recall—a pleasant substitute for the original, unpleasant memory. (In my case, I wanted the crest of the hill to automatically trigger a pleasant image of a time spent with Zack instead of triggering the unpleasant memory of his lifeless body lying in the road. The pleasant memory I selected was an image of Zack standing on his hind legs, front paws hanging over the fence, black tail wagging, and happy to see me.) Imagine this new alternative “pleasant memory” as if it was happening to you now. Be in the experience and see, hear, and feel what you would if it were happening now. This is now your new substitute pleasant memory.
  4. Now, once again, imagine a big, bright picture of the unpleasant memory you wish to change (your original cue image). In the bottom right-hand corner of this mental picture, construct a small dark picture of your new “pleasant memory” that you would prefer to experience instead.
  5. Now, quickly and smoothly expand the small, dark image of the pleasant memory so that it grows to become a big, bright image right in front of you—completely replacing the unpleasant memory. This quick exchange of images (from unpleasant to pleasant) takes about a second. Swap the images in the time it takes you to say, “swish.” The key point is to make the exchange sudden and very fast.
  6. Repeat steps four and five 10 to 12 times.

I listened attentively and followed all of the therapist’s instructions. This was my first experience with the “swish pattern.” Was it effective? Last week, I drove to the old house. As I passed over the crest of the hill, sure enough, the first memory that came to my mind was the happy image of Zack standing on his hind legs, front paws hanging over the fence, black tail wagging and happy to see me—just like we programmed my mind to do in this exercise first completed a quarter of a century earlier.

Is the swish pattern magic? No. Does it always produce such impressive results? Probably not. But when you have a troubling memory, is it worth giving it a try? Absolutely!

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 5 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Grace

    Grace

    September 28th, 2015 at 7:44 AM

    What a terribly sad story :(

  • Ronaldo

    Ronaldo

    September 28th, 2015 at 5:09 PM

    Wait how is this different from hiding the unpleasant things that you would never want to think about? Aren’t we supposed to be facing the truth here instead of creating alternate and fabricated endings?

  • jennifer L

    jennifer L

    September 29th, 2015 at 8:35 AM

    I believe that whatever you can do to make sense of negativity in your life, you should do it. Any of us should want to discover something positive to smile about and it seems like in the author’s case this is what has been done. I don’t think that it takes the reality away but it does help you took at some things a little more clearly and hopefully with an emotion that can make you smile and no longer sad. I don’t think that that is a bad thing.

  • Timothy Storlie

    Timothy Storlie

    September 29th, 2015 at 1:37 PM

    Jennifer L. wrote, “Any of us should want to discover something positive to smile about and it seems like in the author’s case this is what has been done. I don’t think that it takes the reality away but it does help you took at some things a little more clearly and hopefully with an emotion that can make you smile and no longer sad. I don’t think that that is a bad thing.”

    You have understood what I hoped to convey. In my experience, there is nothing in this technique that takes away reality. In practice it does just the opposite. The technique (when appropriately) applied, empowers you to face the truth of experience without collapsing. It offers a way to gently steer certain powerful memories in way that feels empowering, rather than allowing these memories to over-power you. The tears still come but so do the smiles. That’s called “healing.”

  • Sally

    Sally

    May 23rd, 2016 at 10:59 AM

    Could someone with dark intentions use this swish pattern in the opposite direction?
    Maybe taking their victim to Disneyland waiting for them to feel happy and then dropping a negative comment over and over until they feel bad.
    Unfortunately NLP is and can be used to control and manipulate unsuspecting victims.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.