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Fear of Swimming: An NLP Case Study by Mark Shraga

The problem:

The clients' presenting problems were essentially the phobia (fear of swimming) and a tendency towards a ‘nagging’, negative self speak. Self speak would manifest whilst being in full flow of expressing herself even in positive contexts.  Some issues around money and home life were in the background and were not engaged upon until later life coaching sessions.

The solution:

Although the classic solution to a phobia, in the NLP canon, is essentially the fast phobia approach or a classic or tailored swish pattern (approximately 15 minutes), the clients' commitment and belief that and introductory session plus 3 further sessions was the right amount of time to get her outcome led me to utilize the full amount of time at hand to help move the client on and give her lasting change on multiple levels.

Introductory session:

During this session we covered off a task I had asked her to complete with her husband and the desired result was that he had taken a stake in her outcome and now morally supported her decision to seek out NLP Coaching (instead of sabotaging her which was the pre-existing pattern). The material generated from the task questions helped to release more resources and enabled the client to see that the outcome was possible. We then focused on scrambling the auditory feed on her self speak to free her up to see more possibilities for herself without undermining herself. We then created a resource anchor for the client and tasking was to load the resource anchor at all opportunities moving forward.

1st Session:

We began by going through the process of releasing the major 5 negative emotions through Time-line therapy in the following order: anger, sadness, fear, anxiety and guilt. During the fear section we experienced a series of positions with large amounts of emotional release with vivid recollections from a very early age, approximately 3yrs old. We encountered a mildly traumatic moment at which point I asked the client to trigger her resource anchor, which had been nicely loaded with positive resources between sessions. The client subsequently experienced a strong flow of powerful realizations. After completing the timeline therapy we had almost completed the first 2hr session and the difference in the clients physiology was very clear in terms of congruence; distinctly more symmetry and a greater sense of easiness in her breathing, less tension in the jaw and shoulders.

2nd Session:

During the 2nd session I delivered a series of metaphors whilst the client was in a light trance that were designed to provide a deep resource structure for her in the build up to having an experience of getting into the water for the first time in 40yrs. I focused on anchoring a state of feeling at home and strong laughter on the inside whilst she imagined floating on the surface of the water in the sea. The clients’ feedback was that she had a ‘block like hard object’ feeling of fear in her stomach and that this became stronger when she was in the water (in the trance). We focused on changing the structure of the ‘block like hard object’ until it was a soft gooey mass that felt more like the texture of home to the client. Once this was achieved I brought the client out of trance and asked her to consider how she might feel about going to a swimming pool with a friend and just making some notes covering points like:
1.           How close to the pool can I get without wanting to move back?
2.           What do I feel and what is that feeling like when I am near the pool?
3.           What pictures, feelings or sounds do I get when near the pool?

With this task I finished our 2nd session. The following week I received an email stating that she had gone to the swimming pool with her sister and just gone in at the shallow end and spent the entire time laughing.

3rd Session:

During the 3rd session we recapped on the client's major breakthrough in the swimming pool and went through her notes covering her detailed thoughts and feelings about the experience.  We noted that although she was now comfortable with a conventional swimming pool a little bit of the ‘blocky hard’ feeling still came up in her stomach when thinking about getting into the Sea.  I then focused the session on a tailored swish pattern, eliciting key sub-modalities and then fully engaging the client in a series of ‘Tony Robbins’ style animated and loud swish patterns. We tested intermittently until the desired state was consistent and then future paced in the context of the old problem. It was no longer there.


I was initially hesitant about taking on a problem of this nature wherein the client could experience serious trauma within the sessions and furthermore they could experience it whilst attempting to get into the water. Careful tasking, focused Contracting and sequential session design enabled me to see the solution in full and gave me the confidence to deliver it in partnership with the client. Being strongly influenced by Ericksonian approaches I am firmly of the belief that no client is broken and that they just need some help releasing the resources from within.

Initial client feedback:

"I would just like to try and express my deeply felt gratitude to you. I'm still amazed at the changes that have taken place in such a short space of time. As you know I experienced crippling fear in water, for as long as I can remember and yet after just two sessions with you, I can now play around in the sea, a pool (out of my depth with a float!) and will now be able to take swimming lessons - it's incredible! I admit, I was sceptical at first and also quite nervous about entering a pool after our only two sessions with you. But as soon as I entered the water I felt different. The dreadful feeling of fear has gone, it is so weird! But brilliant! I had the most amazing holiday shortly afterwards and I know that you said not to rush myself but I'm afraid I did; I was just so excited. So although I can't swim yet, ignoring your good advice, I used a float and went far away from the shore, completely out of my depth and felt great.

This experience has been so incredibly remarkable, I really feel as though anything in life is possible now, thanks to you." (June 2012)

Follow up and further feedback:

I have touched base with the client roughly once a quarter since the initial set of sessions in May 2012 for a year and the results have just kept coming, in line with further breakthroughs in subsequent life coaching oriented sessions wherein tasks included mindfulness practices and cultivating a meditation practice. The statement below is feedback exactly a year on from the clients big breakthrough in getting through her phobia of swimming.

“Dear Mark, It has been a very interesting year or so since our first meeting and subsequent NLP sessions and I'd like to thank you once again for helping me bring about some much needed changes in my life.  I know I still have some changes to make and more 'stuff' to deal with but I feel incredibly confident  and positive about that thanks to you. There have been other people and interactions along the way, I have read a lot of different books and blogs but I knew after the first session with you when I experienced a combination of NLP, hypnotherapy and time line therapy that I felt dramatically (wonderfully!) different - a feeling of calm, peace and intense relaxation along with a sense of amazing clarity, a sort of heightened awareness. And also confidence, the knowledge that I can create a different experience if I want to. When I entered a swimming pool for the first time in years - despite some mental trepidation - after only two sessions with you and was able to have fun and feel ok in the water, it was mind blowing. Sounds daft but it really was, and still is an incredible feeling. I felt that the overwhelming fear I experienced in water was just something I had to live with, I had no idea that it could be changed, or erased so easily! As I mentioned, I have been meditating daily for a few months now and it feels as though I'm building upon the good experiences I had in those two sessions with you. Having spoken to you since, I now understand the remarkable changes within me, as I have been creating more conscious downtime and therefore experiencing better quality uptime in recent weeks. By becoming more 'present', simply 'being' I feel a real improvement in the quality of my interactions with others. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. Like I said I have a long way to go, there have been some very difficult, tough times in this past year, but I feel so much more positive and peaceful - there is always something to learn from every experience isn't there? I really enjoy reflecting on what I can learn from different situations and interactions. I don't suppose I'm always on the right track but it's always an opportunity to grow and hopefully improve my experience and reality. I'm learning to respect the fact that everyone is on their own journey. Including me! It feels very exciting, and empowering and also very calming too - sounds odd but I'm not quite sure how else to put it. I still intend to make some changes in my work situation so watch this space...   Thanks Mark!” (June 2013).

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