Ericksonian Hypnotherapy

Hypnosis is not some mystical procedure, but rather a systematic utilization of experiential learnings – that is, the extensive learnings acquired through the process of living itself.– Milton Erickson, M.D.

Hypnosis is a natural trance state of deep focused awareness, in which the subconscious is more readily accessible and open to suggestion. Introduced to the medical community in the mid 1700’s by Anton Mesmer, trance induction initially emphasized relaxation and enhanced rapport between doctor and patient. The actual term ‘hypnosis’ was coined in the mid 1800’s by psychologist James Braid, who’s interest in mesmerism led him to carry out experiments and studies which legitimized hypnosis as a sound clinical technique. By the late 1800’s a young Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet, a pioneer in the treatment of traumatic memory and dissociation, were mentored by neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot who utilized hypnosis to treat hysteria. Both Freud and Janet went on to conceptualize hypnosis as a vehicle for communicating with the deeper subconscious mind. Fast forward to the late 1940’s and 1950’s when a geographical shift in the study and research of hypnosis occurred. American scientist and academic Clark Hull established scientific principles and statistical analysis geared towards measuring behavior solicited through hypnotic induction. Legendary psychiatrist/psychologist Milton Erickson revolutionized hypnosis by emphasizing the collaborative nature of the induction process, and by utilizing the unique elements and resources of the trance subject’s intra-psychic world. Erickson’s impact and contributions to the advancement of hypnosis and hypnotherapy has afforded him recognition as the greatest clinical psychotherapist of all time.

According to Erickson the goal of hypnotherapy is to induce a natural utilization of mind and body. For this to happen, communication with the unconscious is facilitated through basic principles of pacing and leading. Pacing refers to the hypnotist communicating irrefutable information as to who the patients is and where they are in that moment. Leading is what assists the patient with moving into an altered state of consciousness. For example, “as you get comfortable in your chair (pacing) you can consider moving into a trance today (leading).” Cardiologist Herbert Brown introduced the “relaxation response”, in which breathing deeply leads to an automatic relaxation response, instrumental in inducing trance. Using the breath in the process of pacing and leading can effectively encourage the dissociation between the unconscious and conscious mind, thus allowing a shift into a trance state to occur. Using metaphorical language to speak to the unconscious further encourages the shift into trance.

The following example of a hypnotic induction for a depressed nihilistic compulsive over-eater, illustrates how the use of metaphors which reflect the patient’s physical, emotional and psychological reality results in a nuanced attunement to the patient’s response system, so as to further their therapeutic goal to shed unwanted pounds.

“Struggling to let go of the weight of the world straining your back, keeping you from going forward into a place of support. Keeping you right where you are now, which is then later when it might be too late to take the time, all the time you need to feed all these empty spaces. Perhaps too afraid to hold onto to letting go into that place where the emotional starvation might be fed with something other than a cheese Danish or perhaps a wonderful bagel dripping in butter. Might as well stuff all the nothingness with the richness of pleasurable taste. Distracting you from the misery of this miserable world.”

Eventually the induction concludes:
“Metabolizing the possibility of feeding all the hunger with that which feels weightless and light. Maybe even lightning the load so that you can possibly imagine the impossible levity of shedding those endless pounds of lard that you put into your mouth and become your massive hips, legs, stomach…straining your back, yearning to feel comfort. And you really can possibly, maybe give your subconscious mind permission to offer relief and nourishment. Feeding the hunger with every breath, like a garden receiving a rainfall. Soaking it all in with every breath, feeding those empty spaces until you feel so full with a weightless levity. And you really can not not allow that? Can you not not?”

Since it is always the patient who determines if the clinician’s words will effect change, Erickson stressed the importance of “utilization”, accepting and validating the patient’s reality and utilizing the patient’s unique defenses and symptoms to discover the internal creative resources that can lead towards behavioral transformation. By joining the patient’s individual impressions with sundry hypnotic strategies such as word play, story-telling, distraction and confusional techniques, indirect suggestions, anchors and cues, future pacing, and myriad other hypnotic tools, the alteration of symptoms and hence a reframing of one’s perceptions and behavior can result. Additionally deepening one’s connection to the natural unconscious abilities and internal resources responsible for manifesting life-affirming change is an invaluable by-product of the Ericksonian hypnotherapeutic process.