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A Guide to NLP and Addiction Treatment

In this post, we examine how Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) may be utilised in treating substance abuse and addiction generally.

For addiction treatment to succeed, a highly personalised approach must be adapted to the needs of each individual seeking treatment. What may work for one may utterly fail for another. It’s thus vital for addiction therapists to have a number of techniques at their disposal.

We feel it only makes sense for therapists to add NLP skills to their arsenal of offerings. Doing so means therapists are making use of modern and proven therapeutic techniques that have already assisted thousands of people in the fight against addiction.

A brief introduction to NLP

NLP models many effective therapeutic techniques developed by renowned psychotherapists such as Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson and Gregory Bateson. The name Neuro-linguistic Programming was adopted because this form of therapy is concerned with the relationship between the brain (neuro) and language (linguistic).

Specifically, NLP aims to assist clients by exploiting the benefits that may be achieved when language positively influences the mind. Language may be internal in nature (thoughts) or external (how we communicate with others). Further, language also influences stored memories, and how we may retrieve and process these memories.

NLP may be utilised in helping clients better cope with addiction ‘triggers’ and in coping with traumatic thoughts. In this respect, NLP is not too far removed from cognitive behavioural therapy, particularly when it comes to the treatment of addiction.

NLP in the professional addiction treatment setting

We now discuss three key NLP concepts and techniques that help you to improve addiction treatment outcomes:

1. Rapport: getting the client/therapist relationship off to a winning start

NLP may be utilised during all phases of the addiction treatment process. Early on in this process, NLP skills may be used to help the therapist gain rapport with his or her client. Rapport is based on the notion that people are generally drawn towards others who are not dissimilar to themselves.

A client’s treatment goals are much more likely to succeed if he or she has established a positive relationship with the addiction therapist.

A poor client/therapist relationship is a common reason why addiction therapy fails to make progress. If you are currently undergoing addiction treatment and you do not feel the relationship with your therapist is able to improve, we suggest you seek out alternative treatment. Only once a positive client/therapist relationship is established is treatment able to progress in a positive direction.

Below, we list some NLP techniques that allow you to establish rapport with your clients:

  • Matching voice and language: This is where you match your client’s tempo, tone and volume of speech
  • Matching modality: This is where you must determine what is your client’s ‘primary information process system’. This is either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. Once you have determined this information, you must then communicate in a way that caters to your client’s preferences
  • Matching physiology: This is where you match the posture or hand gestures of your client


2. Meta Model: Challenging your client’s map of reality

Another broad NLP technique that may be utilised during addiction treatment is known as meta modelling’ (MM). A metamodel allows you to ask questions to expand and challenge the limits of your client’s reality. A client’s current metal model represents his or her current perception of reality. The notion underpinning meta-models is that mental states may be translated into words.

Humans have a tendency to reduce the world to simple linguistic descriptions or ‘language patterns’. The meta-model helps you to uncover your client’s deeper model of the world by uncovering the sensory-based experiences underpinning these word-based descriptions. You utilise questions to assist you in overcoming vagueness.

Questions help to challenge and change your client’s thoughts about both him or herself and how he or she perceives the external world. For example, if your client says ‘I will never pass my exam’, you could ask ‘what will prevent you from passing?’ or ‘what would happen if you did pass?’

Below, we list NLP-based terms that seek to describe the inaccuracies that are generated by people’s linguistic model of reality:

  • Distortions – Shifts in experience relating to sensory data. For instance, making a part of experience less important than another part of it
  • Generalizations – Elements of a person’s model of an aspect of the world represents the larger category of which the experience is. For example, the person who drinks too much once, thinking he or she will always drink too much
  • Mind reading – This is the tendency for us to guess other’s thoughts or feelings towards us. For instance, you may assume the opposite sex does not find you attractive
  • Deletions – This is the tendency to pay selective attention to certain aspects of experiences while ignoring others. For instance, you may focus on the negative at the expensive of the positive aspects of a situation
  • Modal Operators – These are words or phrases that dictate or imply what is possible, right or necessary. Examples include “must”, “should”, or “can’t.” For example, a client may believe or she cannot go without alcohol after 8 PM

When you undergo in-depth NLP training, you will be taught to recognise each of the above when interacting with clients. You will also be taught to ask specific questions that help to clarify and challenge your client’s thinking.

The Meta Model forces you to listen to your client before you make any snap judgements. Meta-Modelling corresponds to Habit 5 of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ i.e. to “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

3. Establishing desired outcomes with ‘outcome specification’

Another important NLP concept is known as outcome specification. This helps the therapist to clarify the client’s goals and desires. Clarifying desires and goals may be difficult due to mind reading, distortions and generalisations. These factors mean clients are often unable to verbalise what they really wish to achieve by undergoing addiction therapy.

The below questions will help you in assisting your client when it comes to clarifying goals:

  1. What do you want?
  2. How will you know when you have it? What will be evidence of success?
  3. Where will the goal be relevant and/or irrelevant?
  4. What stops you from pursuing the goal wholeheartedly?
  5. What personal resources that you already possess can you draw upon to help you achieve this goal?
  6. What additional resources will you need in order to achieve the goal?
  7. How might the pursuit of the goal affect important people in your life? Is there any risk associated with achieving this goal?
  8. What are the daily actions you will need to take in order to achieve your goal? What is the first step?
  9. Given everything you have considered to this point, is achieving the goal worth it?


That’s it for now

We hope you enjoyed this article. Be sure to check back for updates.  We believe the above tactics will help you in enacting positive change for your clients and their families. Please bear in mind the above article is merely an introduction to NLP for treating addiction. If you wish to further your NLP knowledge, please check out the useful resources below.

Further resources: