Back to Top

A Vital Therapy Principle

Why all practitioners should understand the principle and technique of anchoring

It's not a question of whether we use anchoring or not, but how we use it, because it happens absolutely all the time.

I’ve occasionally seen a kind of disconnect in thinking whereby a practitioner may feel that a technique is or should be a sort of standalone panacea for all kinds of therapeutic ills. But what they’re forgetting, and what interests me, are the principles of human experience that lie behind therapeutic techniques.

A technique is only as effective as the human emotional or psychological principles it rests upon.

If those principles are sound, then the techniques formed around those principles will be effective. So, for example, the Rewind Technique is effective for phobias and trauma because it mirrors the way the brain naturally detraumatizes itself.

Once we understand the principles of psychology, then we can even form our own techniques – as long as they, too, are generated from real human patterns of psychological experience.

If, on the other hand, a technique is formed around a complicated theory, based not on observation or research but on fantasy or incomplete understanding, then the psychotherapeutic techniques may be as effective as a chocolate fireguard.

Of course, a practitioner may use techniques that don’t mirror pre-existing patterns of human experience and still find that their client improves. But we should remember that in such cases it may well be that the catalyst for improvement was simply the expectation of improvement – the basic human principle of hope.

If the practitioner doesn’t understand this, they may be less effective than they could otherwise be. If we just see techniques without seeing principles first, we can find it hard to see how our clients’ problems formed and how best to treat them.

Anyway, quite recently, on our monthly live Q&A call for those attending our online courses, we had a great question concerning the technique of anchoring, which of course is based on the universal human principle of pattern matching.

You can read the transcript of my answer below, or follow the link at the bottom of the page to listen to the recording.

Practitioner question

Hi Mark & Joe,

I am curious to know your thoughts on the effectiveness of ‘anchoring’. I understand that it is based on the work of Pavlov and the technique is basically pairing physical touch with a positive feeling. However, scientific tests have shown its effect to be one of placebo and very short-lived. Obviously any technique has its limitations, but I am interested to know if you have had any feedback from clients on the benefits of anchoring.

Mark’s answer

Thank you for the question.

Well, any technique that works will only work if it is based on pre-existing psychological patterns. This is why we say that hypnosis happens anyway, regardless of the presence or otherwise of a hypnotherapist. Placebo plays a role, as it did even with Pavlov’s dogs. Not a conscious expectation, but an unconscious one.

So the psychological and physical principle that anchoring attaches itself to is pattern matching, which can be extremely powerful – so it makes sense to form a technique, or in fact many techniques, around this basic human principle of experience.

Now, all psychotherapists will use anchoring, often without knowing it. Their very therapy room may become an anchor to feel a certain way. A client once told me they had spent years going to a therapist who made them cry by suggesting they think about all the painful events in their life over and over. This therapist was, in a sense, hypnotically regressing this client to past pain – although I’m sure the counsellor in question would have sincerely denied they were applying hypnosis (because of a lack of understanding of hypnosis!).

New Ways of Seeing Ebook

FREE Reframing Book! Just subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter below.

Download my book on reframing, "New Ways of Seeing", when you subscribe for free email updates

Click to subscribe free now

Anyway, this client told me that in the end he would just cry by going into this other therapist’s office. The room itself had become an anchor or pattern match for him. I asked him to imagine what this person’s room looked like, and he started to well up just by picturing the room.

I salivated for years, even as a young adult, whenever I heard a key turning in a lock, because as a child my mother had always brought me a chocolate bar when she returned home from work, because she felt guilty that she wasn’t at home when I returned from school. There was an anchor that lasted for years.

Smokers pattern match to all kinds of things which become anchored to the desire to smoke, a kind of placebo or… I guess nocebo response. Phobics can be anchored to the sight of a spider for decades if the pattern match has been instilled in them powerfully, even just once sometimes. Some people have phobic or PTSD triggers affect them for decades. So certainly the principle of anchoring can be powerful in addiction, phobias, and PTSD – not to mention superstitions, which can also last lifetimes!

Now if an anchor or pattern match installation is really intense, than you don’t need to repeat the anchor over and over in order for it to stick. For example, a client I know had the experience one time of feeling terrified up high when she was 4, for her height phobia to last until the age of 60. Just from a one-off associative experience!

But on the other hand, many smokers build up their pattern matches over time, because each experience of, say, coupling – having a smoke with a coffee or beer – isn’t that intense, so they need to repeat it over and over in order for the association to become strong and for it to feel weird, even impossible, to have their coffee without a cigarette. You may need to hear an advertising jingle many times for it to become anchored to a particular product. Because the experience of that jingle in association isn’t that intense, repetition is needed for the association to be formed.

Now as far as applying anchoring as a technique, I will tend to use it more subtly than the standard squeeze-your-fingers-together technique, although that can be really powerful and certainly I’ve had clients report back afterwards that it’s been transformative. But we need to understand we are not simply aiming at the physical anchor to be the trigger for feeling good, but the situation they are hypnotically experiencing when the anchor is applied – that needs to become the anchor or trigger for resourceful feelings. If you apply a physical anchor, then it needs to act like a stabilizer, which can be dispensed with once the client can deal with the situation independently.

We can also use anchoring more subtly. I told one woman a story about a wise, calm owl and linked it to overcoming her anxiety at work. She had no conscious memory of the metaphorical anchor, but told me subsequently that she had the feeling of calmly being above everything and had the fleeting image of a beautiful owl as she went into work.

I suggested to a smoker that his lungs could talk to him about those cigarettes they were having to deal with and had never had any say in the matter. He reported later that the cigarettes had tried to win him back once but he’d had such a heavy feeling of reluctance in his lungs that he just didn’t want to give them house room. So metaphors act as anchors, especially in the hypnotized subject.

It’s not a question of whether we use anchoring or not, but how we use it, because it happens absolutely all the time.

It's not a question of whether we use anchoring or not, but how we use it, because it happens absolutely all the time. Click to Tweet

Listen to the audio from this Q&A excerpt here.

Or use this link to save the mp3 file.

Learn Anchoring Online

You can learn how to use anchoring in hypnosis with our practitioners’ course Uncommon Hypnotherapy, along with many other hypnotic techniques that you can integrate into your practice. Read more.

New Ways of Seeing Ebook

FREE Reframing Book! Just subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter below.

Download my book on reframing, "New Ways of Seeing", when you subscribe for free email updates

Click to subscribe free now

Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

You can get my book FREE when you subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter. Click here to subscribe free now.

You can also get my articles on YouTube, find me on Instagram, Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook.

Search for more therapy techniques:

Share via
Send this to a friend