Managing Negative Emotions in Addiction Treatment Using NLP

In this article, I discuss ways a counselor can use NLP strategies to help manage feelings of guilt, grief, and regret rising from past addiction issues. I briefly review the Stages of Change and NLP Models and then apply NLP strategies with a hypothetical client.

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NLP in Addiction Treatment

Are you a counselor looking to use NLP strategies with clients? I’m here to explain how NLP strategies can to help manage feelings of guilt, grief, and regret rising from past addiction issues. In this article, I briefly review the Stages of Change and NLP Models and then apply NLP strategies with a hypothetical client. As always, you questions are welcomed at the end.

The Stages of Change Model in Addiction Treatment

The Stages of Change Model is a framework describing the process a person goes through to change a lifestyle habit, which in the case of our clients is addiction. A basic assumption of the model is that change does not occur in a single step, but goes through a series of distinct, predicable stages. I mention the model because addressing negative emotions may be counterproductive when the client is not prepared.

The stages of change are as follows (image courtesy of

Emotions in Addiction Treatment Using NLP

A place to begin resolving emotional issues such as grief, loss, and regret can be at the Maintenance Stage. In the Maintenance Stage, the client has found ways to:

  1. avoid obstacles causing relapse such as stress, apathy, or loss of support
  2. develop a lifestyle that no longer includes drugs

With stability in place, the focus can shift to long held negative emotions that may lead to relapse. It is those emotions we address in this article.

Neuro-linguistic Programming Applied to Addiction

Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) is the study of subjective experience. This approach explores the connection between neurological processes, language, and experiential behaviors (image courtesy of

How can beliefs influence addictive behavior 3

People can unlock their full potential and solve problems, including addiction, by employing NLP strategies. In summary, NLP is a set of powerful skills, a philosophy, and a useful attitude.

Hypothetical Client – Ex-Meth User Maintaining Abstinence and Filled with Negative Feelings

Juanita is a 45-year-old woman who was addicted to meth for several years until completing an inpatient treatment program 9 months ago. Since completion of the program, she has changed her behavior and made choices that ensure drugs no longer play a role in her life.

Her husband, Jim, and her 12-year old daughter, Wendy, have been supportive, but Juanita is aware that her drug use made their lives difficult. While Juanita feels good about her progress, she makes an appointment with me because deep feelings about her past lifestyle remain:

  • guilt that Jim and Wendy were hurt by her drug use.
  • grief at the loss of close relationships and the trust of loved ones.
  • regret at wasting so much time and money on meth.

The focus of Juanita’s counseling is not addiction but the feelings resulting from her drug use.

I begin our session by building rapport with Juanita and identifying her primary representational system as auditory. She makes statements such as “I heard my daughter crying when I missed her ball game,” and “I listened to my husband discuss financial concerns.” She often looked down and to her left, which indicates that she is talking to herself in her own voice. Therefore, I asked questions such as “did you voice your concerns?” and “did you request your husband’s support?” Juanita says that the positive intent of her feelings is to remind her to maintain a healthy life style for herself and her family.

Logical Levels

When change does not occur, exploring a client’s neurological levels can help determine where blocks are located. Therefore, I take Juanita through the Logical Levels exercise. My goal is to gather information and better understand what makes her “tick.” Juanita’s responses regarding the presenting problem of negative feelings are shown below.

1. Environment Level refers to what is around the person when the behavior occurs.
Juanita: Whenever I see Jim and Wendy.

2. Behavior Level refers to what the person does.
Juanita: I feel guilty. I am filled with grief and remorse regarding my past behavior.

3. Capability Level refers to what a person can do.
Juanita: I am on the right path now. My husband and daughter forgive me, but I can’t forgive myself.

4. Belief Level refers to what a person thinks he or she can or should do.
Juanita: I owe my family so much. I can never undo the problems I caused.

5. Identity Level refers to what a person thinks of him or herself.
Juanita: I am a bad wife and mother.


One place to intervene is at the Behavior Level where I can explore Juanita’s feelings, thoughts, and internal self-talk. For example:

Guilt: Juanita feels guilty for not being there for Wendy.
SWISH PATTERN – I asked Juanita to
– picture Wendy’s sad face when she missed a ball game
– picture Wendy giving her a big hug and smile.
– “Swish” the two images, replacing the old image with the newer one.

Grief: Juanita feels sadness for the time she wasted using drugs.
SUBMODALITIES – I asked Juanita to:
.– identify the shape, size, color, and density of the sad feeling.
– alter the shape, size, color, and space of the feeling to see if the feeling lessens or changes.

Regret: Juanita feels great remorse for her actions.
PARTS INTEGRATION – I ask Juanita to
.– identify the part of her that feels remorse and the part of her that wants to release the remorse.
– allow the two parts to discuss ways to resolve the feeling.

A second place to intervene is at the Identity Level. Juanita thinks of herself as a “bad wife and mother.” If we change her identity to “I am a wife and mother who made mistakes in the past and am doing my best to correct them,” she might consider other possibilities. Given that identity, I use the Outcome Specification exercise. The exercise and Juanita’s answers are as follow:

Outcome Specification Exercise

1. What do you want?

Juanita: I want to be the best wife and mother – the best person I can be, again.

2. How will you know when you have reached the goal?

Juanita: I will just know.

3. Why is your goal relevant and/or irrelevant?

Juanita: The goal is relevant because I let my family and my friends down. I want to make it up to them.

4. What stops you from pursuing the goal wholeheartedly?

Juanita: Nothing.

5. What personal resources can you use to help achieve this goal?

Juanita: I was a good wife, mother, and friend. I know how.

6. What additional resources will you need to achieve your goal?

Juanita: I can continue with a coach and maintain my “no drug use” policy.

7. How would the pursuit of the goal affect important people in your life or is there any risk associated with achieving this goal?

Juanita: My family and friends would be thrilled. I would like myself much better.

8. What are daily actions you could take to achieve your goal and what is the first step?

Juanita: Well, I could a) do more with my family and my friends, b) go back to church, and c) renew old friendships.

FIRST STEP: Tell my family and friends about my goal. Maybe we could begin with a family coaching session.

9. Given everything you have considered to this point, is achieving the goal worth it?

Juanita: Absolutely!!

In this article, we discussed several NLP strategies for addressing negative feelings that may arise from drug addiction using; however, there are many other possibilities.

About the author
Dr. Walton has a doctorate in Psychology and is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist. After following traditional counseling approaches for years, she became interested in neurolinguistic programming and how those techniques can be used with individuals whose lives are affected by addiction. To this end, she joined the staff of the iNLP Center and has recently developed a course for professionals entitled "NLP for Addictions". All courses offered by the Center can be viewed at:; the link to Dr. Walton's website is:
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