Barry D Cooper BSc DipCHP HPD AdvDPLT MNCH(Acc) MBPsS

Milton Erickson – the Father of Modern Hypnotherapy

The Father of Modern Hypnotherapy

Milton Erickson – the Father of Modern Hypnotherapy?
by Barry Cooper

The foundations of hypnotherapy were laid in the nineteenth century by medical researchers such as John Elliotson, James Esdaille and James Braid. The latter, who coined the term “hypnosis”, was largely responsible for the acceptance of hypnosis by the British medical community (although its current status among them is somewhat equivocal). But it was Milton Erickson’s observed and published work that made hypnosis a respectable approach within the American medical profession and worthy of study in medical schools. It has been suggested that Erickson was to the practice of psychotherapy what Freud was to the theory of human behaviour.

Erickson was born in 1901 and raised in a farming community in Wisconsin. Degrees in psychology and medicine led to a career in psychiatry. Over his career he published over 140 papers and co-authored several books on the therapeutic uses of hypnosis and was a consultant to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He also gave seminars and workshops, some of which survive on video and audio recordings. He co-founded the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis in 1957, and became its first president and also the first editor of its journal. Erickson died in 1980.

An attack of polio at 17 left him bedridden and totally paralysed. Able only to see and hear, he observed his family, and was able to study non-verbal and body language, effectively turning his disability into an advantage. Colour-blindness, tone deafness and dyslexia also contributed to his view of the world. He was confined to a wheelchair after a further polio attack at the age of 51 but was able to use self-hypnosis to control his pain. The use of hypnotic techniques enabled him to overcome his own disabilities and help others to deal with similar issues.

Erickson never did “Ericksonian Hypnotherapy”. He took a pragmatic approach, utilising whatever techniques were need to facilitate change in each individual client. Although he is remembered for pioneering the indirect (or permissive) approach to hypnosis, he was also prepared to use more traditional direct (or authoritarian) methods where appropriate. Many modern hypnotherapists follow Erickson’s lead in utilising both types of therapy, but for the purposes of the explanations that follow we will treat them as two distinct approaches.

Practitioners of direct hypnotherapy are often authoritarian in style – similar to the persona of the stage hypnotist – telling the client what to do. This is the classical approach to hypnosis represented in countless novels and films; the therapist adopts the role of the expert, and the client is simply a passive receiver for his suggestions. The principal problem with this approach is that the therapy will be ineffective if the client is unwilling to accept the therapist’s suggestions. The client may be the sort of person who resents being given orders, or perhaps is nervous about hypnosis and being under hypnotist’s control. Also, direct therapy is one-sided and does not use the client’s personal resources.

In indirect hypnotherapy the relationship between therapist and client is emphasised. Rather than giving the client orders, the indirect therapist offers new ways of looking at a situation or choices of behaviour, and, as far as possible, the client is encouraged to find these himself from the resources in his own unconscious mind.

It may be helpful to illustrate the two different styles of therapy by the way in which the classic “eye fixation” induction may be used by therapists trained in the direct and indirect approaches.

A classical direct hypnotist may swing a pocket watch in front of the client’s eyes: “I want you to focus your attention on this watch. Watch it swinging back and forth. Your eyes are getting heavy – you are getting sleepy – close your eyes and sleep”.

An “Ericksonian” therapist using this technique (rather than the purely verbal inductions based on “language patterns”) may say something along these lines: “I’d like you to look up at the corner of the room behind me and choose a spot to focus on. You may like to choose part of the wallpaper pattern, or part of a picture ¬†frame, or anything else you wish – it really doesn’t matter. Just let me know when you’ve chosen. Good. Now just concentrate on that spot. You may find it seems to move about slightly, or drift in and out of focus. You may find that your eyes start to blink faster – that’s right – and you may notice that they are starting to feel heavier – when you’re ready to let them close, whether now or in a few minutes time, you can do so whenever you wish…”

The importance of Erickson, and his methods as practised in Ericksonian hypnotherapy, is to take hypnotherapy away from the classical approach involving an authoritative therapist and a passive subject. His indirect approach allows a greater freedom of response from clients, both consciously and unconsciously, allowing them to access their own resources to deal with the real problems from which their symptoms have arisen.