How Milton Erickson Revolutionized Modern Therapy

Updated October 7, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Milton H. Erickson was a psychiatrist who reimagined traditional theories and models of therapy. He moved therapy away from the theory-driven, lengthy, and often burdensome psychotherapy practices established by pioneers like Freud, Jung, and Adler and instead made therapy more direct and solution-focused. He also was a pioneer in the development of clinical hypnosis and advanced hypnotic techniques. In fact, we also owe a debt to Milton Erickson for removing much of the stigma that has surrounded hypnosis as a legitimate form of therapy.

Milton Erickson Worked To Make Psychology Direct And Solution-Focused

Life Experiences

Milton H. Erickson's life was remarkable both for his accomplishments and for the challenges he faced. A look at the bare facts of his biography shows how life events may have inspired him.

Milton H. Erickson was born in a mining camp in Nevada. However, eventually, the family settled on a small farm in Wisconsin, where he spent most of his childhood.

As a child, Milton Erickson was severely dyslexic, tone-deaf, and color-blind. Because of these obstacles, he did not even begin speaking until the age of four.

To make matters worse, Milton Erickson contracted a life-threatening case of polio when he was 17 years old. The illness was so severe that he was in a coma for three days and when he woke up, he was unable to move or speak. Doctors predicted that he would not survive.

Milton Erickson used this challenge as a powerful learning experience. Paralyzed and unable to feel his limbs, he began to concentrate on any slight sensation in an effort to recover his mobility. This focus eventually helped him recover and also provided practical lessons about the power of the human mind.

While incapacitated, he took the opportunity to observe people around him. He carefully noted their body language and nonverbal communication. He learned from observing a younger sister as she began to walk, talk, and interact with the world around her. During this time of thoughtful observation, Milton Erickson filed away some valuable insights about human behavior that would serve him in his later work.

As he developed the ability to speak again, his voice was deeper and his language slower. His speech had the effect of commanding the attention of others. This, too, was an attribute that would prove valuable in his work.

Despite the doctor's predictions, Milton H. Erickson did survive and even became well enough to graduate from college and go on to earn a master's degree in psychology.

After earning his degree, Milton H. Erickson researched hypnosis and suggestibility under noted psychiatrist Clark L. Hull. Although he was fascinated by the possibilities of hypnosis, he was critical of Hull's approach to it, which he felt did not sufficiently consider the needs of individual patients.

He was equally disillusioned with the theories of established psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung. Hull felt that these psychologists cared too much about theory and not enough about individual patients. In contrast to Freud, who believed that the unconscious mind was a dark and negative force, Milton H. Erickson believed that the unconscious held great wisdom and could be tapped to help solve practical problems.

Milton Erickson expounded on his theories in several great works, such as the books Uncommon Therapy, My Voice Will Go With You, and Hypnotic Alteration of Sensory, Perceptual, and Psychological Processes. He also traveled around teaching seminars about his therapeutic techniques, which he continued until he passed away.

Milton Erickson's treatments were unorthodox, even radical, for the time. Stories of his work reveal strange but effective treatments based on individual situations rather than a body of theory. He used metaphors, stories, and puns to communicate with the unconscious mind of his patients. He treated some with clinical hypnosis during a time when the practice was harshly condemned, even forbidden, by the medical community.

Other psychiatrists wrote books and papers specifically criticizing Milton H. Erickson's treatments, and the American Medical Association even threatened to revoke his license at one time. However, none of his critics could argue with the vast number of patients who found an immediate and effective resolution to their psychological conditions under his care.

However, despite all the criticism, Erickson’s work was highly influential. He had many students who would go on to be great psychologists, including Jay Haley, Sidney Rosen, Stephen Gilligan, and Ernest Rossi. One student, Jeffrey K. Zeig, would go on to create the Erickson Foundation, which has helped spread awareness and understanding of Erickson’s hypnotherapy techniques. Erickson also had a partnership and connection with Gregory Bateson, which helped influence his popularity.

In Erickson’s late forties, he developed post polio syndrome and moved to Phoenix, Arizona (the eventual home of the Erickson Foundation) as he believed the weather would help heal his condition. When he was in his fifties, Milton H. Erickson experienced another debilitating polio attack, which left him in terrible pain and confined to a wheelchair. Yet again, Milton H. Erickson used this challenge to his advantage, deriving knowledge about sensory alteration and pain management that would be valuable in his work with patients. Despite chronic pain and loss of mobility, Milton Erickson continued his work until his death in his Phoenix home at the age of 79. His work is continued on by his students, including devoted of the Erickson Foundation and his own daughter, Roxanna Erickson Klein.

The core beliefs and approaches of Ericksonian hypnotherapy can be found in the Works Of Milton H. Erickson. This was spearheaded by Ernest and Katherine Rossi as well as Roxanna Erickson Klein (Erickson’s daughter) and contains many of the writings that Erickson originally published in the American Journal Of Clinical Hypnosis and other periodicals. These include writings about many aspects of Ericksonian approaches including hypnotic induction, therapeutic suggestion, advanced techniques, and other therapeutic techniques as well as an exploratory casebook.

The Erickson Foundation

The Erickson Foundation was formed in 1974 in Phoenix, Arizona under the leadership of Jeffrey K. Zeig. Zeig formed the Erickson Foundation out of his admiration for Milton Erickson and his work. The foundation aimed to spread awareness and understanding of Ericksonian hypnosis so that more patients around the world could reap its benefits.

Erickson himself did not participate much in the Erickson Foundation, as he died only a few years after it formed. However, at the time of his death, the Erickson Foundation was the largest hypnosis conference ever held.

After Erickson’s death, many psychologists began teaching his therapeutic approaches in their own way. This led to many other hypnotic approaches being created. Since so many people were branching out in this field, there was considerable work done to define exactly what Ericksonian hypnosis actually was. This eventually led to the development of the Ericksonian Core Competencies by Dan Short and Scott Miller, which serves as a manual for Ericksonian psychotherapy as well as the Writings Of Milton H. Erickson, which were mentioned above.

The Ericksonian Method

The hypnosis of Ericksonian therapy is quite different from what is practiced in traditional therapeutic hypnosis. Below are just a few of the approaches and therapeutic techniques originated by Erickson.

Redefining The Unconscious Mind

Erickson believed that the unconscious level of the mind was a storehouse of all the wisdom and learning of one’s lifetime whether or not the conscious mind realized it. This made Erickson’s perspective far more positive than the dominant beliefs of the unconscious during that time. Much of psychology was influenced by Sigmund Freud, who viewed the unconscious as a realm of hostility and aggression. With this new positive framework, Erickson utilized hypnosis as a tool to bring out the learnings and reservoirs of inner knowledge.

Indirect Suggestion

While traditional hypnosis gives the patient clear and direct suggestions throughout the session, Erickson opted for a more indirect approach. During this approach, a hypnotist uses language that allows the patient to put the dots together themselves while they are in a trance state. This language is used to get the patient to do or say something without directly telling them to do so.

For example, instead of saying “Your legs are getting heavier,” you could suggest “You may feel your legs getting heavier.” The patient connects the dots of this suggestion as a command and indeed feels their legs getting heavier.

The main benefit of this hypnotic technique is that it allows the patient to go into a trance at their own pace. The therapist does not direct the patient or push the experience. The therapist’s task is simply to suggest the experience with no other agenda. Since the patient knows they are not being forced to do anything and can go at their own pace, it is easier for them to relax into trance states. This technique is most useful when dealing with a resistant patient.

The Utilization Approach

Milton H. Erickson believed that healing psychological conditions lay within an individual's unconscious mind. His "utilization approach" focused on developing a rapport with the subject so that he could communicate with their unconscious. Once he had developed an understanding of an individual's unconscious mind, he would tailor his language to surprise and challenge it, helping it find solutions and heal.

Furthermore, more than any other therapist, Erickson taught the realm of psychology that everything the patient brought to the session was valuable. Therefore, this rapport was essential in order for his patients to bring out as much information as possible.

The Milton H. Ericksonian Handshake

Milton H. Erickson's legendary handshake was one of his most famous therapeutic techniques used as a form of trance induction to encourage patients into altered states of the unconscious. The power of the handshake was the interruption of expected social behavior. The sensation of surprise disrupts the unconscious mind, leaving it open to suggestions and change.

Variations of the Ericksonian handshake are still used in hypnotherapy today.

Including Family In The Therapy Process

This idea may seem obvious to us now, but in Erickson's time, it was considered revolutionary to invite spouses or parents to participate in the therapy process.

Although his approach was highly individualistic, he did not hesitate to include family  when it seemed clear that they needed to be part of the solution.

He was even known to make house calls on occasion.

Erickson's radical ideas about family involvement in therapy have carried over into family therapy practices today.

Hypnosis As A Valid Form Of Treatment

Before Erickson, hypnosis was universally condemned as at best a cheap parlor trick and at worst a destructive and controlling form of treatment.

But Erickson's work liberated hypnosis from the dark shroud of superstition and revealed it as a compassionate and highly effective form of therapy.

Milton Erickson Worked To Make Psychology Direct And Solution-Focused

Although he reportedly used hypnotherapy in only about one-fifth of his cases, those in which he did use it experienced a speedy and almost miraculous resolution of their symptoms.

Today we understand that hypnotherapy is not simply some subversive magic trick but a valid option for treatment in some cases.

Erickson's Legacy

As you can probably discern from some of the examples above, Erickson's influence is alive and well in modern psychology practices.

Here are some areas in which we continue to draw on his work.

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Processing)

A hallmark of Erickson's work was his ability to channel the power of language. He used particular word patterns and tones of voice to elicit specific responses in his subjects, based on his knowledge of them from rapport-building.

Later, researchers Richard Bandler and John Grinder used Milton Erickson's theories about language as part of their basis for Neuro-Linguistic Processing, a kind of therapy in which language patterns can dramatically affect behavior and cognition.

Ordeal Therapy

Erickson also made contributions to ordeal therapy (sometimes known as shock therapy). Ordeal therapy is an intervention that aims to extinguish maladaptive behavior by introducing an ordeal or activity that is worse than the behavior. By forcing the client to partake in this ordeal, they more easily drop the maladaptive behavior. Though the ordeal process is not popular, Erickson’s work was continued on by Jay Haley and other prominent psychologists.

Brief Therapy

Before Milton H. Erickson's time, psychotherapy was commonly accepted to be a process that could take years. It was 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 your symptoms.

In contrast, Milton Erickson's approach was practical and solution-based. He believed in addressing the symptom directly. This approach was so efficient that his work often appeared miraculous.

Today, where time limits often bind therapy due to insurance industry demands, we see a shift to more solution-based, "brief" therapy, similar to that practiced by Milton H. Erickson.

Family Psychotherapy

Today, family psychotherapy is commonplace, but it was radical in Milton H. Erickson's time and earned him sharp criticism from his peers. We now understand that addressing family dynamics can be an important part of finding solutions. He not only inspired the popularity of family therapy but of strategic therapy specifically.

Hypnotherapy

Many people struggling to quit smoking, lose weight, or cure insomnia have found relief by seeking the help of a trained hypnotherapist. But it wasn't always that way. Hypnotism was seen as nothing more than a showy carnival trick that no self-respecting mental health practitioner would even mention. But Erickson changed all that. He demonstrated that hypnotherapy could be a compassionate, respectful, and highly effective treatment in some cases.

Milton Erickson broke the mold in the psychotherapy world, and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his revolutionary contributions. Although Erickson could have predicted the future of psychotherapy, chances are he would have embraced the medical community’s introduction of internet-based therapy.

Online counseling is growing in popularity and research shows it is effective. For example, one study found that online therapy was even more effective than traditional in-person sessions, with 100 percent of participants in the online group showing continued symptom reduction three months after treatment. On the other hand, individuals in the face-to-face group showed “significantly worsened depressive symptoms” over the same period.

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