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Getting Past that Old-Style Hypnosis

You've probably seen examples of old-fashioned hypnosis in the movies. The scene usually portrays the hypnotist as a slightly overbearing authority figure and the patient as an unquestioning, sheepish character, totally powerless to resist the hypnotist's commands. The way the hypnotist induces trance is totally graceless and very dominating. He (and it was always a "he") commands: "YOUR EYES ARE GETTING HEAVY, YOU WILL GO TO SLEEEEEP . . ."

Although a rather extreme caricature, this scenario is not a million miles away from how old-style hypnotherapists used to operate. But as the times changed, so has the way that hypnotherapists work. Today, medics and professionals are no longer revered for their unattainable knowledge. Most people have access to medical information if they want it. Back then, professionals put themselves above the common, non medical person. And historically, many — though not all — hypnotherapists were physicians or psychiatrists. Hypnotherapy training today is no longer exclusively the domain of the medical profession and a wider, rich range of professions are involved in its practice.

Some common attributes of what we call old-style hypnosis involved:

  • An authoritarian approach and presentation to the patient.
  • The hypnotherapist commanding the patient into trance.
  • A very monotone, artless, repetitive approach to trance induction.
  • The absence of a therapeutic relationship between therapist and patient.
  • A doctor-knows-best approach to treatment. No negotiation.

In essence, the old-style approach was: "Do as you're told." Today, people don't accept this type of behaviour from a professional from whom they're seeking help. People expect to have a dialogue, ask questions, and be treated with respect. So clearly, the old style — essentially an authoritarian style — had to be modified.

Understanding the way hypnotists used to work is helpful in understanding how modern methods of hypnotherapy thinking and practice developed.

Milton Erickson, a US psychiatrist who started practicing hypnotherapy in the early 1900s, helped modernize the field. He developed a variety of new techniques, as well as a more relaxed approach called the permissive hypnosis style, traits of which include:

  • Greater respect, gentleness, and support for the patient.
  • Use of anyaspect of a patient's beliefs and language to induce trance.
  • Empowering the patient's unconscious mind to find its own solution.
  • The use of metaphor. Erickson developed the ability to improvise story-telling relevant to a patient's life, interests, and/or problem to help the patient's unconscious mind search for its own solution.

It is difficult to convey Erickson's widespread influence. No other single hypnotherapist to date has influenced current hypnotherapy practice as much as Erickson. Not only did Erickson write prolifically about his techniques, but also other hypnotherapists have written prolifically about Erickson, and have even analyzed his style of working with patients to create new forms of therapies.

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