Milton Erickson is widely regarded as the “father of modern hypnotherapy”. He was a psychiatrist who transformed traditional models of therapy with a more direct and solution-focused approach. He moved therapy away from the theory-driven, lengthy, and often burdensome psychotherapy practices established by pioneers such as Freud, Jung, and Adler. His discoveries, tools and techniques have hugely influential many forms of therapy, including short-term therapy, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and guided imagery
He preferred to engage with clients using metaphors, stories, contradictions, symbols, and antidotes to influence their behaviour rather than direct orders and found that indirect suggestion could result in therapeutic behavioural change – quickly!
Born in 1901 in Nevada, Erickson contracted polio at the age of 17. During his affliction he was often bed-ridden and he became extremely aware of the importance of nonverbal communication, such as body language and tone of voice, and he noticed that these often contradicted what was actually being said. Increasingly he became interested in behaviour and why people act as they do and how certain acts can be influenced to produce a different outcome.
After visiting Erickson at his bedside, his doctor told Erickson's mother that her son was entirely paralyzed by polio and that he would not live until morning. Erickson overheard this and asked his mother to arrange a mirror so that he could see the sunset. If he was going to die, said Erickson, at least he would enjoy the beauty of a last sunset. Erickson went on to live for another half-century, dying in 1980.
Spanning over 50 years, Erickson’s work sparked a fundamental shift in modern psychotherapy and revolutionised the practice of hypnotherapy. There are many key elements of his techniques including to “put yourself in the patient’s shoes” and truly understand the client’s present situation.
Hypnotic trance is an altered awareness and exists in many different forms. It and us all in everyday life without realising, like daydreaming. Traditional hypnotherapy is the use of this altered awareness for therapeutic purpose using direct suggestion to promote positive change in behaviour. Such direct suggestion may work for some, but certainly not everybody. In fact, some people are able to resist these suggestions, whether they mean to or not. Many of us don’t like being told what to do whether in hypnosis or not!
Ericksonian hypnotherapy favours indirect suggestion because they appear to be much harder to resist as the conscious mind doesn’t recognise these as suggestions at all. Such indirect suggestions can be disguised as a story or metaphor or anecdote. Erickson discovered that this type of suggestion worked effectively without conscious resistance. Throughout his work, he developed ways of bringing about positive change with what, on the surface at least - appeared to be a normal conversation. This allowed the subconscious to be helped, without the resistance of the conscious mind.
For example, a direct suggestion would be, “You will fall asleep now”. An indirect suggestion wool be “You might like to close your eyes, if you wish to relax.”
Erickson was extremely skilled in tailoring his sessions for each client. He would spend time getting to know the person to help him understand their experience and use this to promote change. Such a tailored approach may seem obvious now but was quite radical at the time. Sometimes he would be indirect and calming, sometimes he would be direct and forceful. Sometimes the hypnosis he used would barely be thought of as hypnosis at all.
Working with symptoms
Erickson believed the symptoms of an issue or problem were a part of the process. He would often focus on changing the symptoms in order to change the entire pattern of the problem. This may be the intensity or location for example. For example, if a client with a compulsive urge needed to wash their hands 50 times a day, Erickson would instruct them to wash 100 times. This , he believed, would change the behaviour from an internal compulsion to an externally imposed chore.
Engaging the unconscious mind
Erickson believed our unconscious mind contained all the necessary tools and resources we need to bring about positive change. He focused on engaging the unconscious by any means available. The language of the unconscious is imagination and metaphor. Erickson knew this, so metaphors, therapeutic stories, and even jokes and riddles were a crucial element of his work. The unconscious mind would process these stories as coded messages. The unconscious would be able to understand the point of the story, while the conscious mind did not. This storytelling to the unconscious is, in simple terms, what hypnosis is all about.
It is solution focussed
Before Erickson, psychotherapy was commonly accepted to be a process that could take many years. It was firmly based on the belief that you had to get to the root of all the inner conflicts and traumas in the subconscious mind that may be causing the symptoms. However unlike Freud and many others, Erickson didn’t believe that the cause of problems needs to be removed from the past. His approach was practical and solution-based. He believed in addressing the symptom directly. This approach was so efficient that his work often appeared miraculous.
This solution focused is simply future-oriented and goal-directed. The focus is on the client's health and wellbeing rather than the issue or problem itself. It centres strengths rather than weaknesses or deficits. It focusses on the skills, resources and coping abilities that help clients achieve current and future goals.
Ericksonian hypnosis is considered a highly effective type of therapy and is the preferred style of many hypnotherapy practitioners today, who use these solution-focused techniques to help their clients achieve excellent outcomes.
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Malcolm Struthers Hypnotherapy - Online and in-person in Dumfries & Galloway