Milton H. Erickson, M.D., is generally acknowledged to be the world's leading practitioner of medical hypnosis. His writings on hypnosis are the authoritative word on techniques of inducing trance, experimental work exploring the possibilities and limits of the hypnotic experience, and investigations of the nature of the relationship between hypnotist and subject.

Perhaps less well known is the fact that Dr. Erickson had a unique approach to psychotherapy which represented a major innovation in therapeutic technique. He spent many years developing effective and practical methods of treatment which may or may not involve the formal induction of trance. Those who think of him largely as a hypnotherapist might be surprised that he listed himself in the telephone directory as psychiatrist and family counselor.

Dr. Erickson likes to describe therapy as a way of helping patients extend their limits, having spent his own life doing just that. In 1919 when he was stricken with polio he was informed that he would never again be able to walk. After many hours concentrating on achieving a flicker of movement in the muscles of his legs, he was up on crutches within a year. He even managed to obtain and hold a sitting-down job in a cannery to help finance his way into the University of Wisconsin.

Adapted from Jay Haley (1967) The Milton H. Erickson Foundation

How is Ericksonian Hypnosis different from conventional hypnosis?

Thre are two main differences. The first is that conventional hypnosis sees trance as an artefact stemming from hypnotic suggestions, whereas Ericksonian hypnosis sees trance as a natural psychobiological state that arises from life events. That is, traditional hypnosis sees trance as the resultof the hypnotists suggestions, pure and simple. Thus, trance doesn't occur until and unless there is a situation defined as 'hypnosis' and someone called the 'hypnotist' performs something called 'hypnotic technique' with someone called the 'subject'.

In contrast, Erickson emphasized that trance occurs with or without hypnotists. My best understanding is that trance is special learning state that occurs whenever identity is threatened, disrupted, or needs to reorganise. This could happen in many situations: trauma, times of change in a person's life (a birth, death, illness, graduation, marriage, divorce, etc.), contexts of uncertainty. At such times, a person's normal identity is not equipped to respond adequately to the situation. For example, if you had an identity as a single person and then get married, your old identity can't quite meet the new challenge. So some process is needed for lettng go of your old identity and moving into a state where a new identity can be generated. Trance is the natural resource state that accesses at precisely those times. Hypnosis is one of the social tranditions that can provide a ritual space and process to receive and positively guide the trance process in helpful ways. So you see, an Ericksonian hypnotist is looking for how and where the trance is already occurring, rather than creating one artificially.

The second difference, related to the first, is the traditional hypnosis generally thinks of trance in the singular, whereas Ericksonian hypnosis always emphasizes it in the plural. All trances are not created equal. Erickson emphasized how each person is radically unique, something that really becomes apparent in trance... To me, it is one of the great values of trance. You are setting aside the conscious mind that is basically a conservative social construction and exploring the experiential/archetypal mind, which is much more artistic and unique.

Excerpt from an Interview with Dr Stephen Gilligan, former student of Milton Erickson

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