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Named after Dr. Milton H. Erickson, a prominent American psychiatrist and psychologist widely regarded as the "father of hypnotherapy", Ericksonian Hypnotherapy is founded on the belief that everyone has all of the internal resources and capabilities necessary to make any positive changes that they wish. It is a very specific type of hypnosis characterised by indirect suggestion - delivered through the use of language, metaphors, contradictions, symbols, and storytelling - to bring about therapeutic behavioural change.
Paralysed and suffering extreme pain after contracting polio at just seventeen years of age, Erickson spent his teenage years acutely observing the people around him. He began to notice that people didn't always say what they meant and they often suffered from incongruent behaviour. For example, if his parents confronted a sibling about completing their homework, he could see his sister’s body language say “no” even though she spoke the word “yes.” It became of great interest to Erickson to understand why people acted as they did and how to intervene in order to influence outcomes.
Unlike Freud, who encouraged self exploration, Erickson's approach did not make your past history the focal point. But rather, Erickson thought it critical to "put yourself in the patient's shoes" and truly understand the client's present situation. It isn't necessary for you to re-live past hurts and traumas in order to resolve issues you are experiencing today.
Ericksonian Hypnotherapy is rooted in a firm appreciation for the structure and flow of unconscious thought. After all, if your conscious mind knew how to make changes, then you would have made them already; the answers you are looking for are held within your unconscious mind. Where the conscious mind thinks in terms of logic and the rational, the unconscious mind uses the logic of dreams, metaphors, and puns. Therefore it makes sense to communicate with the unconscious mind in its own language. As such, Erickson would construct multi-layered stories - entertaining the conscious mind on one level, but with concealed meanings that would work beneath the surface with the subconscious mind. Furthermore, because we all project our own unique meanings and understandings into a story (based upon our own values, experiences, and map/view of the world), by using metaphor, the hypnotherapist is less likely to impose his or her own ideas.
So what actually happens during hypnotherapy and how does it work?
When you hear or read the word "hypnosis", you might think of the traditional form of hypnosis where the powerful, authoritative hypnotist implants suggestions in his subject, such as, "you are getting sleepy. Your eyelids are growing heavier and heavier..." and if you've ever seen theatrical hypnosis, you may also be expecting to start clucking like a chicken or behaving in some other way outside of your control.
First and foremost, a hypnotherapist cannot make you say or do anything that is outside of your own free will.
Secondly, hypnotic trance is a normal function of the human brain - in fact, it is necessary for our brains to "shut off" to our environment and take time to process new information, in order to prevent being overloaded. Although we do most of this processing whilst we sleep, due to the volume of information we are exposed to, we all go into a trance many times throughout the day, without even being aware of it. Have you ever caught yourself daydreaming? Or found yourself so engrossed in a book or TV programme that you didn't hear a question from a family member? Or parked your car after driving home but unable to remember the journey? That was your conscious mind shutting down so that your unconscious mind could process new information.
Hypnotherapy is simply the use of this naturally occurring trance state for therapeutic purposes.
In more scientific terms, it is generally accepted that the speed of our brain waves increase or decrease in tandem with shifts in levels of consciousness. Brain waves cycle the fastest when a person is fully conscious. This state of heightened alertness is referred to as Beta. Conversely, in the Alpha state, brain waves are thought to cycle slower, and it is generally thought that this is when a person is somewhere between consciousness and the edge of sleep. The Alpha state is characterised by a sense of calm and heightened creativity. Even deeper levels occur when a person is in the Theta state (on the brink of sleep) or in the Delta state (in deep sleep). Hypnosis generally takes place at the Alpha level, where certain physical chance can be observed: breathing is deeper and more patterned; muscles in the face, neck, and shoulder relax; the chin drops; facial skin tone and colour changes; and the head may tilt forward or to the side. For reasons unknown, when in the Alpha state, a person becomes open and receptive to suggestions for change - particularly if he or she believes the change is desirable.
As mentioned earlier, Ericksonian Hypnotherapy is characterised by indirect suggestions - which are much harder to resist because they often go unrecognised by the conscious mind. An example of of an indirect suggestion is, "...and perhaps your eyes will grow heavy as you listen to this story, and you may want to close them, because people can, you know, experience a pleasant, deepening sense of comfort as they allow their eyes to close, and they relax deeply..."
Also accredited to Erickson is the confusion technique - where long, ambiguous sentences are used in order to confuse the listener and disrupt their chain of understanding. As you try to follow the meaning of complex sentences that are structurally incorrect and don't quite make sense, you experience a mental overload - putting you into a highly attentive state, which is perfect for slipping in beneficial suggestions, avoiding the watchful enemies of reason and logic.
Ericksonian Hypnotherapy is considered a highly effective type of solution-focused therapy.
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