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NLP for Optimum Health

by Jane Revell(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 59 - December 2000

How can NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) help us prevent illness and stay as well and healthy as we possibly can? For those of you who are not too sure what NLP is, let me begin with a brief description, before suggesting ways in which it might enable us to maintain optimum health.

What is NLP?

NLP has been called an instruction manual for our brain: it explains how we take in information from the world and make sense of it in our head. This is the 'neuro' part. Recent medical science acknowledges that neurological processes crucially affect how we feel and how we behave.

Once we are aware of how we operate these processes, we can operate them differently in order to think, feel and behave in new ways.

The 'linguistic' part is a lot to do with enhancing how we communicate with other people, but perhaps most of all, it is to do with enhancing how we communicate with ourselves. It is about noticing the kinds of things we say to ourselves; about discovering patterns in this internal dialogue; finding out how useful they are and changing them when they aren't helping us.

'Programming' might sound ominous, but it just implies that we have been moulded by all the beliefs, values, ways of thinking, talking and behaving etc. that we've received from parents, peers, teachers, the media and so on throughout our lives. In fact 'programming' promises new possibilities too: we're not born 'like that', fixed for ever; if programmes can be created, they can also be undone, and limiting ones replaced with more useful alternatives.

NLP puts all of this and much more in a collection of core concepts, models and strategies that enable you to relate well to yourself and to others and achieve what you want to in your life. Underpinning all of this is an attitude to life expressed in the 'NLP presuppositions', beliefs that can make a substantial positive difference in your life if you choose to act in accordance with them.

I have taken four of these presuppositions as our starting point in thinking about how NLP can help us attain optimum health. They provide us with a useful framework and will also serve as a springboard to the other parts of NLP.

Staying Well with NLP

One of the most important NLP presuppositions is that mind and body are richly interconnected. This belief predates NLP by thousands of years, of course, but is nonetheless a core premise of everything we do in NLP.

The implication for health is obvious. In order for our body to be well, our mind needs to be well. We know that when our mind is not well, when we are anxious or stressed, is often the time we are more prone to illness or accident. And yet anxiety and stress are not just something that happens to us, something outside of our control. Anxiety and stress are to do with how we react to what happens to us, something within our control (though we often don't like to admit it). As I said above, how we react depends very much on how we talk to ourselves about our situation: our internal dialogue can either encourage us to respond resourcefully, or else severely sabotage our efforts and leave us even less able to cope. As Shakespeare said:

"There's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." [Hamlet]

How true. But what can we actually DO about it?

Well, once you realize all this is happening, you can begin to listen out for the kinds of things you are saying to yourself. This is not always easy at first: language is such a deeply ingrained programme and we use words very much unconsciously – we're just not used to listening to ourselves in this way. It does, however, get easier with a little practice to become aware of some of the unhelpful things you tend to say to yourself over and over again.

Here are just a few common limiting patterns to watch out for:[1]

Insulting yourself I'm so stupid
Imposing unnecessary demands on yourself I have to do this perfectly
Ruling out possibilities I can't get through this

We call these limiting patterns because, quite literally, they limit the possibilities we have in coping with the world rather than recognizing our strengths and capabilities.

Once you are able to identify a limiting pattern in the way you talk to yourself, write it down and look at it carefully. Then question it, challenge it, argue with it…play about with it so that it no longer has the same obstructive power that it once did.

NLP offers some suggestions for playing with limiting patterns (and, as you get used to doing this kind of thing, you'll will no doubt find creative new ways of destabilizing them yourself):

Insulting yourself


I'm so stupid




Change from who you are to what you do

That was a stupid thing I did (but I'm not a stupid person)

Imposing unnecessary demands on yourself


I have to do this perfectly





Question the demands;

What would happen if I didn't?

What's the worst thing that could happen if I didn't?

What makes that necessary?

Who says?! (Am I acting out someone else's idea of what I should be rather than my own?)

Ruling out possibilities

I can't get through this






Open up possibilities.

What stops me?

What do I need to get me through this?

What would help?

What have I got through before that I didn't think I could?

An alternative way of destabilizing these kinds of patterns (negative automatic thoughts or NATs as they are called in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is to listen carefully to the kind of voice that is saying these things in your head and then change it. Imagine the words as coming out of a radio, CD or cassette player. What do you do when you don't like what you're hearing? You simply turn the volume down. Or even off. You can do that in your head too. And pull the plug out if you need to! Or you can play with the quality of the voice: make it into a high-pitched squeak or a silly cartoon character's or comedian's voice … whatever it takes to reduce its power and render it less noxious. Experiment and do whatever works best for you.[2]

Why Go to All This Effort?

Well, there is another NLP presupposition that the map is not the territory, which means that my experience or perception of the world and the actual world out there are two different things: my map of the world is not the same as the world itself, in the same way that a map of Africa is not the real Africa. So the map is not the territory, but…the map is liable to become the territory.

If my experience causes me to believe something is a certain way, and I say so to myself repeatedly, then it is very likely to become that way for me, whether it was actually true or not to start with. These are self-fulfilling prophecies: you tend to get very much what you expect to get. Like the man who was locked in a refrigerated lorry overnight and died of hypothermia because, even though the refrigeration was switched off, he was convinced it was very cold in there.

If I keep insulting myself, saying how stressed/unhappy/stupid etc. I am, then I end up being (or being more of) those things – to my cost. If I impose big demands on myself constantly, I put myself under stress. If I rule out enough possibilities, I can get frustrated and stressed. And the consequence of all of these things is that I am more likely to get ill.

All this is also true of course for those occasions when we actually do become ill. Very often we exacerbate our illness by the way in which we think about it and talk about it to other people. There's a big difference between saying 'I'm asthmatic' and 'I get asthma attacks sometimes'. 'I'm asthmatic' implies permanence and closes off any hope of relief or cure, while 'I get asthma attacks sometimes' offers the possibility of something different.

This works in reverse too, as is evident in the power of positive affirmation in helping people heal. This kind of approach is used by Kai Kermani in his healing work with Autogenic Training, and also by the Simontons in their work on the power of belief and visualization in helping people to overcome cancer (see Bibliography below).

So in addition to monitoring and destabilizing your limiting patterns, it's a very good idea to generate and frequently practise some positive patterns as well!

In this short article I have only been able to offer brief pointers to ways that NLP can help us attain optimum health. I want to leave you now with a final NLP presupposition that we each have all the resources we need. Sometimes they are hidden away in the mists of our past or buried under the piles of debris that we unknowingly generate in our day-to-day lives. My invitation to you is to start your quest to uncover your resources, to clear away some of the debris and to find the treasures that each of us has hidden.

I wish you good luck with your quest.


1. In NLP jargon – and so that you recognize them should you be reading any NLP books – these patterns are known as Meta Model infringements or violations. The Meta Model, created by John Grinder and Richard Bandler, drawing on Noam Chomsky's work on Transformational Grammar, was designed as an instrument for clarifying what we mean by the very imprecise language we use and is described fully in The Structure of Magic (see Bibliography).
2. Features such as volume, voice quality and so on are called submodalities in NLP literature.


Bandler Richard and Grinder John. The Structure of Magic. Science and Behavior Books. 1975.
Kermani Kai. Autogenic Training. Thorsons. 1992.
Revell Jane. Success over Stress. Saffire Press. 2000.
Simonton O Carl et al. Getting Well Again. Bantam Books. 1992.

Some Recommended Introductory Books on NLP for the Newcomer

Bandler Richard. Using Your Brain for a Change. Real People Press. 1985.
O'Connor Joseph and McDermott Ian. Principles of NLP. Thorsons-Harper Collins. 1996.
Revell Jane and Norman Susan. In Your Hands. Saffire Press. 1997.
Robbins Anthony. Notes from a Friend. Fireside. 1995.


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About Jane Revell

Jane Revell has worked as a professional trainer throughout Europe and Latin America since the early 1970s. She is a member of ANLP (Association of Neuro-Linguistic Programming), ISMA (International Stress Management Association) and SEAL (Society for Effective Affective Learning), and is the author of several books, including a lively and accessible introduction to NLP (In Your Hands) and, most recently, Success over Stress. She is a Master Practitioner and a Certified Trainer of NLP for INLPTA (the International NLP Trainers Association) and also runs workshops on stress management.

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