Forgetting the pill: Dealing with severe stress using NLP instead of drugs

Research in neuro-science at Harvard and McGill is looking at use of drugs to alter the emotional association of memories for stress and trauma patients. NLP has been doing the same thing for years, and I think the mechanism is almost the same but without the side effects of the drugs.

Articles in The Sunday Times (Drugs may wipe out trauma memories, 26/2/2012) and Wired Magazine (link) report that current trauma therapies are not effective but that traumatic events can be erased using drugs. The background into how memories are formed and altered is even more enlightening.

In NLP we say that people code memories with a preference for visual, aural or kinaesthetic senses (primarily). Adept NLP practitioners can identify these preferences through many indicators including choice of language. Personally, I had thought that saying that the brain stored memories in these distinct ways was a simplistic model or metaphor to describe a useful result. This research, however, describes how component senses associated with the memory really are stored in separate areas of the cortex associated with each of the senses. (This reminds me of the way colour images are pulled together from the three primary colour components of red, blue and green).

The emotional element of any memory is stored in a different part of the brain altogether. Whereas what are called the ‘episodal’ aspects of a memory, that is the factual part of what actually happened, are stored in the ‘mammalian’ part of our brain, the raw emotion is stored in the most ancient and primitive part of our brain often called the ‘reptilian’ brain. It is responsible for taking care of our maintenance functions such as breathing and pumping blood. It is also responsible for keeping us alive, including the well known ‘Fight, flight or freeze’ responses to danger.

In severe emotional episodes where people subsequently suffer from what has been termed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the associated memory of the original events can easily be triggered and cause re-living of debilitating negative emotion. Re-experiencing the emotion can lead to re-enforcement and creation of what therapists refer to as a gestalt, or cluster, memory.

Rather perversely, in an attempt to treat PTSD, therapists had been getting sufferers to ‘talk things through’. And you can guess the result. In March 2012 I was invited to the Military Academy at Shrivenham to speak to officers on the Masters course in project management about my book on NLP for project managers. In describing the mechanisms for NLP, I referred to this research to collaborate some of the theory behind neuro-linguistic programming. Many of them had come off active duty, ie a tour of Afghanistan. Prior to going in to speak to them I noticed that I was billeted next to the ‘Stress Clinic’. I asked them to put their hands up if they thought that current treatments for PTSD worked. No hands went up. I asked who thought present treatments made things worse. Half the hands went up. This reflects the findings from the Harvard research that traditional current treatments are not always effective.

Considering this can be a crippling condition affecting up to 30% of war veterans, and with high suicide rates amongst ex-servicemen, this is a shocking state of affairs. But help is at hand.

Around 2000 it was discovered that memories were far from permanent. Similar to when a memory is read from a computer hard disk into higher memory (RAM), the original recording becomes vulnerable to change, that is the memory can be changed and saved as an updated version. What the researchers at Harvard discovered in the pilot study is that if they use traditional beta-blocker drugs such as propranalol while memories are being recalled then the copy re-stored has a much reduced emotional content. Larger scale studies are now under way.

Traumatic event ->
Sights, sounds & feelings stored in cortex. Strong emotion stored in Amygdala ->
-PSTD – strong emotion ‘bleeds’ into present, debilitating sufferer

Associate with event, calling memory into malleable form ->
consciously disrupt memory and corrupt link to emotional element ->
Restore corrupted memory without strong emotion ->
‘Future pace’ to test memory no longer has emotional impact

But we don’t need the drugs. During one of my NLP training courses in February 2012 I replaced a traumatic event in one of the delegates using a similar principle and NLP techniques. I get them to recall an event that they want to change. When they are in recall and associated with the emotion I start to interfere with the sensory aspects of the memory. I talk them through changing the qualities of the component sights, sounds and feelings, for example by asking them to replace dim images with bright ones, close objects as distant, turning threatening sounds into Daffy Duck voices. The process can seem quite lightweight to an observer, but it works. Without the drugs.

But we need not be fighting in Afghanistan to suffer. The effects of stress are relative to the extremes of the individual’s circumstances. The world economy has been in turmoil for 4 years now and we are perhaps not half way through the crises yet. Jobs and livelihoods are threatened, and people are staying in jobs they don’t like for fear of not having one. Workforces are cut and those left behind, with the threat of redundancies over them, are being asked to extend long hours even longer. Cases are arising now from people suing employers for industrial injury for not preventing stress at work. Medical insurance policies are having to pay for counselling to get people back in work.

The project management profession, which can be stressful at the best of times due to the focus to deliver on time and to cost, is perhaps worse hit. A poll by the Australian Institute for PM cited stress as the number one concern of their membership. What is your working environment like? Do something about it before it becomes a problem for you and your employer.

Following from the success of ‘NLP for Project Managers’, I have a new book on the topic of Resilience and Stress Management coming out in December and am conducting a promotional tour of the UK this year. Catch dates on