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Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy for the Treatment of Depression Part I

by Nancy Blake(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 174 - September 2010

NLP - Neurolinguistic Programming - has become widely known and has permeated our culture in many areas, often without being named. Its concepts appear in many contexts, including in articles on Positive Health PH Online, often enhancing the effectiveness of healing processes. But sometimes the ideas seem only partially understood, or misunderstood. It is timely for me to return to the original purpose of this column, and begin to provide clear explanations of NLP basics, as tools which you all can make use of, both personally and professionally.

Fundamentally, NLP is the study of how our brain represents and processes our subjective experience. Once we understand the sequence of mental activities which are operating in a particular situation, it gives us much more ability to control what is happening. In the case of emotional difficulties, we can find new ways to process our thinking. If we are trying to improve our performance in any area, it gives us ways to do that.

And as my theme is 'Practical NLP', I will explain how these basic concepts can be used in the treatment of depression.

If you told Richard Bandler that you were depressed, his question would never be 'why'. It would be 'how - how are you doing that?' He would be really interested in knowing the mental steps you were taking which had the result that you felt depressed. The answer would be complex, of course, but the solution might be extremely simple.

Seeing Visualising Future Visualising Past
Words, Sounds, Music
Words, Sounds, Music
Internal Dialogue
Words, Sounds, Music
Internal Dialogue
Emotions, Sensations, (External, Internal) Motor Skills
Emotions, Sensations, (External, Internal) Motor Skills
Emotions, Sensations, (External, Internal) Motor Skills
There are thus roughly fifteen possible areas of attention, and virtually all behaviour consists of sequences of these. For purposes of writing out these sequences, we use the following notation:
Visual: V
External: Ve
Construct: Vc
Recall: Vr
Auditory: A
External: Ae
Construct: Ac
Recall: Ar
Kinaesthetic: K
External: Ke
Construct: Kc
Recall: Kr
As the others

Representational Systems

We use our five senses to perceive our environment, and when we are thinking, we are making a series of mental 'representations' in the same five senses:
Seeing: (Visual external - Ve);
Remembering a visual image: (Visual remembered - Vr)
Imagining a future visual image: what will the scenery be like in the new holiday place we haven't yet visited: (Visual constructed - Vc);
Auditory perception: hearing - includes several categories - we can be listening to sounds, words, or music (Ae);
Remembering (Ar) or imagining (Ac) sounds, words or music.

There is a special category of internal auditory processing with which we are all too familiar - that stream of commentary, usually critical, which goes on in our minds, which in NLP we call internal dialogue (ID) - and in common speech, talking to ourselves!

To continue with our five senses, we 'feel'. This can refer either to sensation (I feel cold) or emotion (I feel happy). This is labelled 'kinaesthetic', so we can again have categories referring to external experience (Ke), or internal remembering (Kr) or imagining (Kc). Probably when we are considering physical performance, there should be a subcategory referring to motor skills specifically. For smell and taste, we would use the words 'olfactory' (O), and 'gustatory' (G).

eye accessing cues 

Eye Movements

This has been officially dismissed by researchers untrained in NLP but whose intention was to disprove its concepts. Bandler, whose philosophical position is utilitarian, would say he isn't interested in whether something is true; he just wants to know whether it works.

This information has been 'proven scientifically' to be untrue, and also works.

If you are working with a client, using this information, check with the client whether what you are assuming is actually true for her or him. It may not be, although I haven't yet encountered an exception.

A person whose unfocused gaze, as you are looking at them, is up to their right, is probably creating a visual image. If the gaze is up to their left, the chances are they are trying to remember a visual image. You can check this, if you need to, by asking them what their front door looks like, and then what it would look like if it were painted a different colour.

A level unfocused gaze generally suggests auditory processing, left if remembering, right if constructing. (Remember the 'shifty-eyed foreigner', so beloved of Enid Blyton? If a person is thinking of what to say in another language, and then trying to remember the words for it - the eye movements will alternate - level left/level right.)

It is likely that a person gazing down to their right will be processing kinaesthetically, either feelings or sensations (again, you can check this - ask your client to let himself become very aware of the feeling of their hands in their lap, or any other sensation - and notice where the gaze goes.)

Finally, the person gazing down to their left is very likely to be engaged in internal dialogue.

Think about the severely depressed person you might see, just walking down the street. Looking down. Muttering. Now look at your depressed client, sitting curled over, looking down. Ask her how she feels and she will say "depressed". Ask her what she is saying to herself, and you can be sure her response will be self-critical. The answer to the question "how are you doing that" addressed to a depressed person, is "thinking very self-critical thoughts - and believing them - then feeling bad".

Now ask your client (or yourself, if it is you who are depressed) to sit up straight, and direct their gaze to a point near the ceiling, and try to feel depressed without letting the direction of their gaze drop. There will be a great deal of surprise when it is discovered that it isn't actually possible.

Our brain is wired in such a way that while we are looking up, processing visually, we cannot at the same time access the self-critical internal dialogue and negative feelings  which are necessary to create the subjective experience we call 'depression'.

This exercise will not 'cure' depression.   But learning that there is a relatively simple way to block the mental activities which characterise depression is a powerful first step in discovering that depression is not in control of you - you can be in control of it.

Your first prescription then, is to invite your client to cultivate a habit  (having once checked that they aren't about to trip over something)  of walking around looking up - at the rooflines of houses, the tops of trees, cloud formations.   Like much of NLP, this sounds so trivial as to be almost insulting, and like most of NLP, based as it is on how our brains actually work, it is also effective.

This just a first step, of course.    This subject will be continued in my next column.


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About Nancy Blake

Nancy Blake BA CQSW, has worked in mental health settings since 1971. She served as Chair of the ANLP PCS (now the NLPtCA), on a National Working Party developing postgraduate standards for Psychotherapy (NVQ Level 5), and contributed to the document which led to NLP being accepted as a therapeutic modality by the European Association for Psychotherapy.  She has presented workshops at UKCP Professional Conferences on an NLP approach to working with victims of abuse, and in psychoneuroimmunology.  Recovering from ME since 1986, she is the co-author, with Dr Leslie O Simpson, of the book Ramsay’s Disease (ME) about ME, as well as A Beginner's Guide to ME / CFS (ME/CFS Beginner's Guides). Both titles are available both in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. Nancy was previously enrolled at Lancaster University in a PhD doctoral program; her thesis topic was Conflicting Paradigms of ME/CFS and how the Psychiatric Paradigm creates its Influence in contrast to the Medical Model. She may be contacted via Her books are available to purchase at

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