Commonalities between Ericksonian Psychotherapy and Native American Healing

By Thomason, Timothy C. | Journal of Mental Health Counseling, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Commonalities between Ericksonian Psychotherapy and Native American Healing


Thomason, Timothy C., Journal of Mental Health Counseling


There are many commonalities between the techniques used in Ericksonian psychotherapy and the healing rituals used by traditional Native American tribes. Milton H. Erickson had some Indian heritage and may have derived some of his therapeutic techniques from his study of tribal healing practices. A review of the literature shows that both approaches emphasize symbolic healing through the use of story-telling, metaphors, ambiguous tasks, ordeals, and rituals. Both also use direct and indirect hypnosis to relieve psychological distress. Implications for the practice of mental health counseling are described.

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INTRODUCTION

Mental health counselors are probably somewhat familiar with the therapeutic methods of Milton Erickson, who has become a highly respected figure in the field of counseling and psychotherapy. Erickson's methods, while perhaps hard to understand and replicate, are fascinating because they are so unusual--sometimes even perplexing (O'Hanlon, 1987). In contrast, most counselors are probably not very familiar with the therapeutic methods of Native American healers. However, a review of both of these approaches reveals significant similarities, and a few differences. Erickson himself was very interested and involved in Native cultures in his home state of Arizona, and he may have based some of his methods on what he learned about Native American healing.

This review revealed that the psychological healing process that occurs in Ericksonian counseling and psychotherapy is similar to the healing process that occurs in Native American treatments for psychological distress. Both rely on a somewhat authoritative healer/therapist who uses symbolic methods and rituals to facilitate receptivity to change in the client. Both often utilize hypnotic trance to facilitate healing. There is some evidence that being in a state of trance can have a healing effect in the sense that trance states can reduce psychological suffering, whether or not they affect a client's physical illness (McClenon, 2002). In the trance state the individual is more likely to suspend rational thought and is typically more open to considering a counselor's suggestions, such as therapeutic reframing of the problem (Waterfield, 2002). This review describes Milton Erickson's therapeutic approach, Native healing practices that resemble his use of hypnosis, and similarities between the two models of psychological healing.

The procedures and tools used in both Ericksonian therapy and Native healing are entirely symbolic. They help clients because they utilize sound psychological principles for creating change (Frank & Frank, 1991). An understanding of these principles and methods may help mental health counselors to be more effective. For example, although clients often resist change, Erickson demonstrated that there are ways to utilize resistance to promote change (O'Hanlon, 1987). Both Erickson and Native American healers have shown that change can be facilitated by attributing the power for change to subconscious forces (in the case of Erickson) or spiritual forces (in the case of Native healers). While different cultures use different symbols in healing, the reason the symbols have healing power is that the client believes in them (Frank & Frank, 1991). This review provides support for the need to individualize treatment based on the client's culture and understanding of how change occurs. It evaluates the literature on Erickson's methods that seem related to or similar to Native American healing methods.

ERICKSON'S THERAPEUTIC APPROACH

Milton H. Erickson is generally considered one of the most innovative psychotherapists of the 20th century (O'Hanlon & Weiner-Davis, 1989). Since his death in 1980 he has become universally admired (Haley, 1986) and has been granted a status comparable to that of other great figures in the history of psychotherapy. He was certainly the most respected and famous hypnotherapist in the world, and his influence has been enormous (Waterfield, 2002). …

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