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What is Ericksonian Hypnosis?

Updated: May 8

What distinguishes traditional hypnosis from how Milton Erickson, MD practiced hypnosis? This is sometimes referred to as “Ericksonian hypnosis” or “Ericksonian psychotherapy.” Here, I can give you an outline of the basic differences. I might add that I am much more partial to Ericksonian hypnosis because that is how I was trained. Furthermore, I think that Erickson’s style is much more respectful of each unique individual.

Portrait of Milton H Erickson, MD as a younger man.
Milton H Erickson, MD was a tremendous therapist and very respectful of your inherent strengths and resources.

Milton Erickson believed that hypnotherapists should tailor our interventions to the unique individual that sits before us. We should not force onto them our pre-existing theories and interventions.

Traditional Hypnosis (aka Old School Hypnosis)

Traditional hypnosis as a way of healing people has a more authoritarian stance. The hypnotist is in control, and he or she expects the subject (the person being hypnotized)  somewhat passive. There is an implicit assumption that the hypnotist holds the power of curing or influencing the subject.

woman looking at pendulum
You are getting sleeeppy...

The hypnotist puts correct ideas into the passive, suggestible mind of the hypnotic subject. Therefore, what the hypnotist thinks should happen determines the subject’s experience. Traditional hypnotism also seems to assume that all the change is coming from the hypnotist, or at least mainly from the hypnotist. Erickson believed that hypnosis was interactional, and came from both the hypnotist and the subject.

Ericksonian Hypnosis Doesn't Need Scripts

Often, traditional hypnotists use a standard script for each presenting problem (e.g., smoking cessation, phobia, etc.) for all patients, regardless of their unique strengths, personalities, or interests. When I have used traditional methods of hypnosis, there is usually something in the script that the subject cannot relate to.

This interrupts the rhythm and flow of the process, and the person is usually less open to suggestion and influence. Therefore, I have not found scripts and prescribed methods to be as helpful or effective. If a hypnotist tells the person to relax by, say, imagining the beach but the subject had a terrible experience at the beach or dislikes water, the subject is just out of luck if there are no other suggestions. It may be an unsuccessful trance for the subject because s/he cannot follow the narrow range of possible experiences that the hypnotist offers.

Ericksonian Hypnosis uses a Strength Orientation

Along these lines, many traditional therapists see themselves as having the answers to the client’s problems, while Ericksonian hypnotists believed the answers existed within the clients. Furthermore, there is less flexibility in traditional hypnosis in terms of what is a problem and what is a solution.

There is a straightforward problem orientation with traditional hypnosis. In contrast, Erickson saw that sometimes a behavior or state could be adaptive and in other contexts, it could be problematic. Therefore, Erickson tended to look for the client’s strengths and resources, and build upon those in his interventions.

Tests of Hypnotizability

In order to establish whether someone was even hypnotizable, they use certain tests that are done to the subject before attempting trance work. This categorizes subjects into groups of easily hypnotized, moderately easy to hypnotize, and difficult to hypnotize. Granted, this emerged from a research tradition. In social science research, there is a need for uniformity and measurability.

Nonetheless, there is not much room for individual differences or meeting clients where they are in traditional hypnosis. Milton Erickson, by contrast, did not believe that some subjects were better or worse at being hypnotized. He thought that it was an experience that just about anyone could have.

What Distinguishes Ericksonian Hypnosis?

Milton Erickson used direct methods, and earlier in his career, he was much more directive. However, over the span of his 50-plus year career, he became less directive and more suggestive in his therapeutic style. Dr. Brent Geary studied with him before his death in 1980. He has explained that part of the reason Dr. Erickson became less directive was that he suffered from post-polio syndrome. He also found that he could orient people towards desired states without as much resistance as traditional hypnotists. Part of that is because of giving commands versus orienting toward and suggesting. An Ericksonian hypnotist can use both direct and indirect methods. He or she is not restricted to only one way of communicating therapeutically.

Ericksonian Hypnosis uses Multi-Level Communication

He also used multi-level communication to get his points across. He used his voice, body location, innuendo, and many other crafty ways to get his point across. Furthermore, Dr. Erickson liked to create experiences that changed the state of the client.

Dr. Jeffrey Zeig has carried this tradition forward and expanded it to increase emotional impact in therapeutic communication. Instead of coming out and saying, “you should exercise” or “you don’t need to worry about that,” he would find ways to show people so that they learned it themselves. This seemed to have more impact than being told what to do. This increased his effectiveness and allowed people to think that it was their decision to change their thinking or behavior. This seems much more empowering than following a therapist’s orders, does it not?

man with graphic outfit (black and white) and backpack creating art similar to Keith Haring
Creativity is a hallmark of Ericksonian hypnosis.

Ericksonian Hypnosis is Creative

Dr. Erickson was a very creative thinker who rebelled against doing the same thing over and over therapeutically. As stated above, he was always inventing a new way to reach his clients, whether they were in trance or not. He encouraged his students and his clients to be creative as well. This is one distinction between the conscious mind, which is usually concerned with survival, and the unconscious mind, which has more wisdom and nonlinear, creative resources at its disposal. When you interrupt the usual thinking patterns of the conscious mind to allow the unconscious mind to emerge, there is much more potential for new ways of framing and solving the problem at hand.

Is Ericksonian Hypnosis for You?

Which style of hypnosis makes the most sense to you? Which do you think you would like to experience? I have experienced both types of hypnosis and find that I am more open to suggestion with Ericksonian hypnosis. Partly it is because I do not feel rebellious about the person’s intervention.

If someone tells me I will experience X or Y phenomenon, I feel a bit stubborn and find it hard to succumb to whatever is being told to me. When I am persuaded or when I am led to discover my own associations to the suggestion, I am more open to it. I think that facilitates my being more responsive and receptive. However, everyone is different. You might like a more directive approach. Or you might like to try Ericksonian hypnosis. If you are open to the latter, please call me at 661-233-6771.

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