Milton H. Erickson was a psychiatrist who reimagined traditional theories and models of therapy. He moved therapy away from the theory-driven, lengthy, and sometimes 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 or hypnosis therapy and advanced hypnotic techniques known as hypnotherapy, which has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of mental health conditions. 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.
Erickson’s Life Experiences
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 H. 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. 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, 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, 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, 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 believed did not sufficiently consider the needs of individual patients.
He was equally disillusioned with the theories of established psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung. Erickson believed that these psychologists cared too much about theory and not enough about individual patients. In contrast to Freud, who believed that the unconscious mind could be a dark and negative force, Erickson believed that the unconscious held great wisdom and could be tapped to help solve practical problems.
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 in 1980.
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.
Erickson used the story of a runaway horse that wandered from a farmer's yard as a powerful metaphor to illustrate the importance of trusting one's instincts and the wisdom of the body memories.
In the story, the horse trotted away from the farmer's yard, unsure of where it truly belonged. Erickson found the runaway horse and decided to trust the horse's innate knowledge to find its way back home. By gently holding the tick rein, he let the horse lead the way, making sure it didn't stray too far off the path. As they sped past various farms, perspiring heavily, Erickson trusted that the horse knew to recognize its home.
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 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.
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, Erickson experienced another debilitating polio attack, which left him in terrible pain and confined to a wheelchair. He again 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, he continued his work until his death in his Phoenix home at the age of 79. His work is continued on by his students, including Herb Lustig and his daughter.
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.
In 1973, the book Uncommon Therapy: The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D., was released by his former student Jay Haley. In Uncommon Therapy, Jay Haley details Dr. Erickson's unique approach to therapy, which included indirect suggestions and the confusion technique. These methods often involved normal conversation between the therapist and patient that were designed to lead to insights and understanding of everyday life.
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. 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, mentioned above.
Ericksonian hypnotherapy 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
Much of psychology was influenced by Sigmund Freud, who often 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.
While traditional hypnosis tends to give the patient clear and direct suggestions throughout the session, Erickson opted for a more indirect approach. During Ericksonian hypnosis, 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,” a therapist might suggest, “You may feel your legs getting heavier.” The patient may then connect the dots of this suggestion as a command and feel 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 may be easier for them to relax into trance states. This technique may be most useful when dealing with a resistant patient.
The Utilization Approach
Erickson believed that the possibility of 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 tended to 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
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 can disrupt 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
In Erickson's time, it was considered revolutionary to invite spouses or parents to participate in the therapy process. Although his approach was typically 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. However, Erickson's work liberated hypnosis from the dark shroud of superstition and revealed it as a form of therapy that can be effective.
Although he reportedly used hypnotherapy in only about one-fifth of his cases, those in which he did use it experienced a quick resolution of their symptoms. Today, many therapists understand that hypnotherapy is not simply some subversive magic trick but a valid option for treatment in some cases.
As seen in 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 Programming)
A hallmark of Erickson's work was his ability to channel the power of language. He often 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 Erickson's theories about language as part of their basis for neuro-linguistic programming, a kind of therapy in which language patterns can dramatically affect behavior and cognition.
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, the therapist may help the client more easily drop the maladaptive behavior. Although the ordeal process is not popular, Erickson’s work was continued on by Jay Haley and other prominent psychologists.
Before 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, Erickson's approach tended to be practical and solution-based. He believed in addressing the symptoms directly. This approach was often so efficient that his work sometimes 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 Erickson.
Today, family psychotherapy is commonplace, but it was radical in Erickson's time and earned him criticism from his peers. We now understand that addressing family dynamics can be an important part of finding solutions. Erickson inspired the popularity not only of family therapy but also of strategic therapy specifically.
Many people working 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 often seen as nothing more than a showy carnival trick that no self-respecting mental health practitioner would even mention. However, Erickson changed all that. He demonstrated that hypnotherapy could be a compassionate, respectful, and highly effective treatment in some cases.
Learn More Through Online Therapy
Erickson broke the mold in the psychotherapy world, and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his revolutionary contributions. If you’re interested in speaking with a therapist with training in his work, you can search among the practice therapists in the local community, or you can work with a therapist through online therapy.
Online therapy 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% 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.
With online therapy at BetterHelp, you can talk to a trained professional from the comfort of your home, day or night. BetterHelp has a team of more than 25,000 licensed therapists, which means you can be matched with a therapist experienced in Erickson’s methods or other therapeutic modalities. If you need to, you can always change therapists until you find a good match.
Below are some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people who have sought online therapy.
“Sean has been amazing and an absolute help. He is professional and yet has shown clear empathy and understanding. We have been having sessions for a month and it’s definitely a really good experience! I highly recommend him if you are looking for someone who listens and tailors the session to you. Thank you, Sean!”
“Beth Ann is attentive and knowledgeable, and she has an understanding of what type of person I am and tailors her sessions accordingly. She has been a great help to me.”
Milton Erickson contributed much to the field of psychology, including theories about the conscious mind and unconscious mind, hypnosis, family therapy, and neuro-linguistic processing. If you have questions about Milton Erickson's methods or concerns about mental health in general, you don’t have to face them alone. With BetterHelp, you can quickly be matched with an online therapist with knowledge of Ericksonian therapy and experience in the specific concerns you are facing. You can talk to a licensed therapist via videoconference, phone, or in-app messaging at a time that works for you. Take the first step toward improved mental health and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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