Our minds receive information through the senses but the emotional impact of that information depends on whether we mentally associate or disassociate to it. We associate by viewing and experiencing an event through our own eyes and bodies. We are literally in the experience, processing it from the perspective of "I see, feel, hear, etc. this event ". We disassociate by taking an "other" perspective, as if we are an observer outside of our bodies. In other words, "I'm looking at myself going through this experience."
Associated experiences have a more powerful emotional impact than disassociated experiences. We are attached rather than detached. It's the difference between imagining yourself looking out the front car of a roller coaster as you speed around the track or viewing an image of yourself at a distance taking the ride.
Understanding this difference in perspectives can be very useful in helping clients overcome phobias and fears or past traumatic experiences. Richard Bandler, co-founder of Neuro Linguistic Programming, developed a process to help clients safely confront minor phobias and fears by disassociating and reframing their experience. The method is essentially a desensitization technique performed in less than ten minutes as follows:
- Have your client think of their fear or unpleasant memory and relive the traumatic feelings just enough so that you can observe their nonverbal response and calibrate, or measure, their fear state. Recognizing their reaction to the fear state will enable you to back off if it comes up during the exercise. After calibrating their phobic/fearful response, break state by briefly changing the subject and guide the client back into a resourceful, positive state before continuing.
- Have your client close their eyes and imagine they are sitting in a movie theater viewing a large screen with a still black and white snapshot of themselves doing something emotionally neutral. This technique is especially effective with clients who are visually oriented but if your client has trouble visualizing, utilize their other senses.
- Tell your client to see themselves leaving their body to float or walk up to the theater projection booth until they are safely behind the glass where, in a very detached manner, they can view themselves sitting at a distance in the audience looking up at the picture of themselves on the movie screen.
- Tell your client to stay in the projection booth to run a black and white movie of themselves proceeding through the fearful or traumatic experience just as it actually happened. Have them run the movie from beginning to end while watching themselves in the audience looking up at the movie of themselves fully engrossed in the negative event. Be sure to watch your client's reactions and back off if they begin to exhibit the fear state. However, they are likely to remain resourceful because they are in the position of a disassociated observer. Once they get to the end of the movie and the traumatic event is completely over, have them stop the movie so that there is another still neutral picture on the screen.
- Have your client imagine they are floating out of the projection booth and out of the audience up to the screen to enter into the final scene of the movie where everything is safe and the event has ended. Have them really connect with being inside and turn everything to color. Accentuate what they see, hear, feel, etc. so they are completely associated to the experience. Say that in a moment you want them to run the same movie in color this time and backwards extremely fast with themselves in it so that they experience the entire event in reverse. It's as if they have a super high speed rewind that makes a WHHHRRRPPP sound and the entire process only takes 2 seconds. Say "Rewind now!" and have them take this step. Afterwards, check to see that they were successful and are back at the beginning. You can have your client reenter the final scene to rewind the movie again in even less than 2 seconds if you want to reinforce this step but one time is usually enough.
- Future pace by asking your client to think about facing the situation in the future or have them recall the past event and ask them how they feel about it now. Their response will probably be that it doesn't seem to have the same effect or that they don't really have any feelings about it anymore. The experience has been reframed and the traumatic emotions neutralized. If your client is still uncomfortable, repeat this procedure in the next session and reinforce the process by using systematic desensitization in hypnosis.
This NLP technique is described in Bandler's book, Using Your Brain For A Change. In conjunction with hypnosis, it is extremely effective in working with phobias or fears in which the client immediately panics when presented with a stimulus, such as a fear of flying, elevators, heights, insects, snakes, water, etc. It is also very useful for reframing past traumatic experiences. It is probably not the method of choice if the fear involves severe anticipatory anxiety or has developed into an agoraphobic type of condition. Try using this technique with a few milder cases first to develop expertise and add another tool to your toolbox.
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