Creating Space for 2 Needle Phobics

I thought I would digress into a clinical interlude….

Recently, I saw 2 of the most severe needle phobics I have ever seen. Both were females around age 25. Both had childhood experiences which were traumatic. One remembers having an anoxic fit and being admitted to hospital around age 10. The other initially had no conscious memory but during our intervention “remembered” being admitted to hospital around age 3 and “being stabbed over and over again” with needles.

The first couldn’t even think about a needle or picture it in her mind’s eye without bursting into tears and sobbing uncontrollably. Successful in other areas of life, she had decided some 6 months after joining my practice that having this irrational fear didn’t fit with being the kind of person she saw herself as. Knowing that I did “weird things to helps people’s minds” she came to ask for help.

The second was pregnant and couldn’t bring herself to the point of getting the various blood tests she needed to monitor her clinical condition. She could think about a needle without getting panicky but couldn’t be in the same room as one in real life.

I had been playing about with the concept of “space” for a while prior to this and decided to use this as one of the keys to the intervention in both cases. One of the things that can profoundly alter our state is what we put our attention on and how we do so. Let yourself follow along with the next paragraphs and notice how you feel…

…Assuming you are sitting as you do this just let yourself become aware of the space that is all around you….pay attention to the space between you and the furniture and walls in the room…take a moment to notice the size of the space…the shape of the space….between the objects…surrounding the objects…notice the difference in the space off to your left side….compared with the space on the right…if you’re sitting on a chair, notice the sense of space beneath you…and imagine what it feels like to put your mind into that space…to get a felt-sense of what that space really feels like….

…Notice the space that touches the outside of your left forearm…the space between the inside of your forearm and your body…the space between your calf muscles…and the space that touches the outside of your calf muscles…notice especially the shape of those spaces…

…Now put your attention on the space behind you…between you and the chair you are sitting in…and the sense of the space behind that…the distance from the wall…the other objects…and even though you can’t see these things behind you …imagine you can get a feeling that connects with that space…a sense that you can put your mind into that space…behind you…and just let your attention rest there…

Now what we have just done is exactly the same as I did with both these young women when they both came for their specific sessions. I anchored the feeling of the space behind them both by looking at it and changing my voice tone as I spoke about it (projecting my voice behind them) and noticed their state changing into a much more deeply relaxed yet still very alert state of mind and body. The key to the intervention was to keep them paying attention to that feeling of the space behind them as we ran through a series of steps to change how they felt about needles.

For each, we identified several past needle trauma memories, culminating in the most severe. Staying in the “feeling behind” we projected each memory out into the space in front and to the left so that they could see themselves “over there”. Then we did some of the usual NLP steps; running the memory from beginning to end (and beyond the end to a point of being safe again), running it backwards at twice the speed, then back and forth at ten times the speed, then doing it again as a black and white dissociated movie.

Occasionally some of the more powerful emotionally evocative memories caused them to temporarily start to feel the negative emotions. All we did at that point was to stop the memory, reconnect to the space behind, put the memory a bit further away into the space on the left, and carry on where we left off.

When we did this with the most traumatic memory – which for one of them only became consciously apparent as we went through the process – we made sure that all the negative feelings had gone. Then we integrated that “younger them” by the following: “Just give that younger you a hug…and let her know that she need never go anything like that again…and as you allow her to reconnect inside you…inside your heart…she can know that everything is all Ok now…”

The proof of any pudding is in the eating. Or, in the case of a phobia, The Exposure! You can expose in 2 ways; the first imaginally and the second in real life. You can do all sorts of submodality shifts with how someone pictures a needle to change how they feel about it. However, in a Doctor’s office, real life needles are never more than a small step away.

For each woman I had already prepared three syringes of varying sizes with some sheathed needles attached so that the points weren’t showing. This is where the rubber really hits the road in terms of testing your work. Many NLPers do the imaginal exposure and trust that it will hold out in real life. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. I like to test in real life if at all possible so that I can both see the reaction and have a chance to do something about it there and then if there is still a negative response.

So by a series of small steps, we brought the sheathed needles closer and closer, all the while paying attention to the space behind until they could touch and hold them and press them against their skin. At times we backed up a little as a negative response occurred before continuing. Then we did the same with the needles unsheathed starting with the smallest and ending up with a standard size for drawing blood which I put through the skin into a vein…Voila!

Both women had camera phones so I took several pictures of the different stages of exposure. This is the kind of thing that can act as a strong convincer of change. They can look at it over and over knowing that they succeeded and also get the social element of change back-up by showing it to friends and family. This is something I would encourage you to do especially when treating fears and phobias.

So what happens if you get a stronger negative response than you anticipated? Does that mean you have failed? Professor Isaac Marks has been an exponent of exposure therapy all his professional life. Despite what many NLPers may tell you, live exposure to a phobic stimulus that causes a phobic response can be curative in a very high percentage of people, uncomfortable as that may be for a period of time.

The trick (if there is one) according to Marks, is to remain in the experience until the negative feelings peak then subside. If you desperately avoid or run away before the feeling has hit a peak and subsided then that will certainly strengthen the phobic response next time you are exposed. And that of course is what phobics do naturally most of the time. If you stay until it has subsided then you have witnessed a natural state change which persists with further exposure.

What I believe NLP techniques bring to the table is the ability to speed up this natural state change and make it much more rapid yet far more comfortable for the patient. Both patients’ sessions lasted less than an hour. The process we have just gone through can be used for all sorts of fears and phobias.

Let me know what you think…


3 Responses to “Creating Space for 2 Needle Phobics”

  1. Michael says:

    Very elegant Lewis! This is a blog post I first expected to be pretty run-of-the-mill since so many NLPers talk about phobias. Then as I read, I realized I was wrong. You’ve put in some beautifully elegant and clever pieces here. I particularly love the idea of taking photos — awesome piece!

    I am very curious as to how you you think the space process outlined creates an altered state. Obviously it’s not just merely shifting to a different scope that does this. I it because you’re directing people to pay attention to exactly what it is they would usually NOT pay attention to? In other words — a state they’ve almost certainly never been in before?

    As for rewinding memories, my understanding is that you first ran a dissociated memory in colour forwards and backwards… then repeated it all with dissociated b&w? Was there a reason to use colour first?

    As you know, the original phobia cure uses double-disassociated movie forward, followed by an *associated* rewind. Do you find any situations where a memory rewind is better associated vs disassociated? I’ve found that different people get more of a shift from one or the other — but I don’t have an explicit way to predict which.

    Thanks for a very useful blog post with many useful pieces! This is artful NLP for sure!


  2. admin says:

    Hi Michael

    Good points…

    I think focussing on the Space behind is another way of going into a peripheral vision parasympathetic nerve state which induces the relaxation response…

    I remember when I was into Drawing some 21+ years ago (just pre-NLP) that I bought a book by Betty Edwards called Drawing on the right Side of the Brain (still in print, plus Drawing on the Artist Within)…One of the things that she got beginning drawers to focus on was negative space…the space that surrounds and is between objects…rather than draw the object she got you draw the space surrounding the object (which then “emerged” from the space)…she claimed that this engaged the right hemisphere and evoked the kind of altered state that artists often go into…Whilst the R and L brain division of functions is less rigidly held these days, the process still has its merits…

    Eckhart Tolle also has some processes that focus on the space that objects arise out of and the space out of which sound emerges (see The Power of Now) as a way to enter an “enlightened” state…

    The key to curing a phobia in my view is to hold an incompatible state whilst imaginally exposing to the phobic stimulus…then doing the same in live exposure…The double dissociation of the NLP phobia cure is one way of getting this stable incompatible state…I only get into dissociation and double dissociation nowadays if the patient keeps collapsing back into the phobic response which is uncommon…

    As for whether you do the rewinds in black and white, colour, associated or dissociated in the reversal, it doesn’t seem to matter that much…I just see this part of the process as a way of scrambling the memory circuits so that it becomes increasingly difficult to get the memory back in the original way, thus robbing it of its emotional power…You can also do content interventions and splice in cartoon characters and other “funny” stimuli to scramble things further….(with one deeply Religious person I spliced in repeated images of his Saviour – very powerful)

    Another way I use is to get the patient standing up, focus on imagining their legs as tree trunks with roots going through their feet into the earth with every outbreath to establish a strong grounded centered state then get them to project the troublesome experience as a video from their umbilicus into the space in front to the left and scramble it in the same way… At a process level this is an identical intervention….(I was going to call it the ArtooDetoo (R2D2) intervention from the droid in Star Wars ;)

    I think the key in NLP, once you learn the original patterns such as the phobia cure etc, is to divert from them and see how you can use the principles to get results in many other ways…if you find yourself getting stuck you can always revert to the original….(though many procedurally oriented individuals will believe they have to stick to the “right” steps each time)….

    One other thing that interests me…some people store their phobic memories dissociated…these are the ones who can’t get into the fear in your office no matter how hard they “try”…they can easily do the double dissociation phobia process but still have the phobia…key here in my view is real life exposure to trigger the fear circuits…


  3. Michael says:

    Thanks Lewis for the useful answers :)