Ericksonian hypnosis is the name given to the particular style of hypnotherapy used and taught by psychiatrist, Milton Erickson. It describes a very specific form of hypnosis. Unlike traditional hypnotherapy, Ericksonian hypnotherapy uses indirect suggestion, metaphor and storytelling to alter behaviour, rather than direct suggestion.
Milton Erickson is considered by many as ‘the father of modern hypnotherapy’. His work has influenced many forms of therapy, including short-term therapy, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and guided imagery.
Erickson is often referred to as ”the greatest therapist who ever lived”.
On this page, we will explore the history of Ericksonian hypnosis. We'll learn more about Milton Erickson, and how his approach has influenced modern hypnotherapy and practitioners today.
Who is Milton Erickson?
Milton Erickson was a psychiatrist who specialised in family therapy and medical hypnosis. At the age of 17, he was paralysed by polio. Immobilised by his condition, the young Erickson began to observe the people around him. He became strongly aware of the importance of nonverbal communication, such as body language and tone of voice, and the way these often contradicted what was actually being said.
He became increasingly interested in behaviour and why people act as they do. He wanted to learn how certain acts can be influenced to produce a different outcome.
Erickson also experienced ‘body memories’. By concentrating on the memory of his body’s previous muscular activity, he was able to slowly regain control and movement of his body. Eventually, he was able to talk and regained use of his arms. While he never regained full use of his legs, he was able to walk with a cane.
Spanning over 50 years, Erickson’s work sparked a fundamental shift in modern psychotherapy and revolutionised the practice of hypnotherapy. Ericksonian hypnosis is now considered a highly effective type of therapy.
Hypnotic trance (altered awareness) exists in many different forms and affects us all in everyday life. Trance is often recognised and used to promote change, such as in hypnotherapy. But these states are actually something we experience every day without realising, like day-dreaming. Traditional hypnotherapy is the use of this altered awareness for therapeutic purpose. It uses direct suggestion to promote positive change in behaviour.
Ericksonian hypnotherapy however uses indirect suggestion. The techniques used in traditional hypnotherapy are believed to work for some, but not everybody. In fact, some people are able to resist these suggestions, whether they mean to or not. Ericksonian hypnosis uses indirect suggestions because they appear to be much harder to resist. This is because often, the conscious mind cannot recognise these as suggestions at all. Usually, indirect suggestion is disguised as a story or metaphor, for example:
“Your eyes may grow tired as you listen to the story, you’re allowed to close them and you can. If you close your eyes you may experience a pleasant and deep sense of comfort as you begin to relax.”
This type of suggestion hints at the possibility of the client’s eyes closing, rather than being a direct command. Erickson discovered that this type of suggestion worked effectively without conscious resistance. Throughout his work, he developed ways of initiating change with what, on the surface appeared to be a normal conversation. This allowed the subconscious to be helped, without the resistance of the conscious mind.
The key elements of Ericksonian hypnosis
Erickson had a unique approach to hypnotherapy, and so it’s believed that many of his methods died with him. But there are certain elements to his approach that have been recognised, analysed and refined, and are now key parts in Ericksonian hypnosis.
Having a flexibility in the approach
Erickson was highly flexible and would adapt his approach with each client. He understood that each individual client would need a tailored approach. Sometimes he would be indirect and soothing, sometimes he would be direct and aggressive. Other times, the hypnosis he used would barely be recognised as hypnosis at all.
Erickson was skilled in tailoring his sessions. He would spend time getting to know the client to help him understand their experience and use this to promote change.
Working with symptoms for change
Erickson often saw client problems as a process. He believed the symptoms were a part of this process, so he would focus on changing the symptom (for example, it’s intensity or location) in order to change the entire pattern of the problem. 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. He believed this would change the behaviour from an internal compulsion, to an externally imposed chore, thus becoming less compelling.
Engaging the unconscious mind
Erickson believed the unconscious mind contained all the necessary resources to bring about positive change, so focused on engaging the unconscious by any means available.
He didn’t believe in the Freudian notion that the cause of problems needs to be removed from the past. The language of the unconscious is imagination and metaphor. Erickson knew this, so metaphors, therapeutic stories, 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 story-telling to the unconscious is, in simple terms, what hypnosis is all about.
Erickson recognised the importance of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool. It was this understanding that led to the development of indirect or 'conversational' hypnosis. This new method moved away from traditional hypnotherapy and the direct instruction of ‘entering a trance-like state’ and instead, adopted a more subtle approach, known as Ericksonian hypnotherapy.