The history to solution focused therapy is a fascinating one and many people do not realise that it was inspired by the work of the very famous American psychiatrist and hypnotherapist Milton H Erickson. The life story of this gentleman is a huge inspiration and is of its own accord an illustration of the power of a solution focused mind. Erickson battled the paralysing affects of polio not once but twice having very unusually contracted the condition twice, the first time when he was a high school graduate.
When he heard the doctor tell his mother “the boy will be dead by morning” Erickson mustered an instinctive solution focused response to the news. He became infuriated but quickly calmed himself and requested his mother to move a piece of furniture to enable him to see the view from the window better. If his demise really was imminent he was certainly going to enjoy the best possible view!
Erickson regarded the time he spent confined to bed with only the senses of sight and hearing to entertain him as an education. He learnt to be an observer of human movement, intention, thought, expression and achievement. This close observation awakened in him the interest and understanding of unconscious patterns which were to become his future.
He would lay in bed visualising what it would be like to walk, noting the smallest of mechanics which were the cogs in the machine of the act of walking. Unwittingly he activated the rehearsal room of his mind as he went over and over the small changes which would be the beginning of standing and of walking, skills which he went on to regain.
Even then Erickson was sowing the seeds of utilisation by locating inner resources gathered in other times and other experiences and applying them in this new context. He qualified as a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist rapidly acquiring a reputation for what came to be known as his “teaching tales” and metaphors. He would often succeed therapeutically with cases where his colleagues had failed to create positive change.
Naturally Erickson’s work was observed by many therapists who sought to recreate his success. Grindler and Bandler were inspired by some aspects of his work and created NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). Most hypnotherapists today incorporate some NLP techniques in their work.
Solution Focused Brief Therapy: The Beginning
Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg (a married couple) became the originators of Solution Focused Brief Therapy when they created the Brief Therapy Centre in Malwaukee, USA. They were soon joined by Yvonne Dolan and others. The solution focused approach was radical in that it was solution rather than problem focused; thus clients were enabled to move from a problem centred mindset to a solution focused mindset. The approach is client centred, non-judgemental and solutions are often not linked to the problem in a direct way. For example, a client who found playing tennis improved her ability to concentrate as work and her social life!
The Brief Therapy Centre dealt mainly with family problems which had often become very complex over time. It was a revelation for the therapist to be able to ask each family member present what they would see as improvement, how would they recognise that improvement and what changes those small changes which were the beginnings of improvement would bring to others close to them. In this way the Client would shift from problem formation mode into solution formation mode.
The originators of The Brief Therapy Centre used the therapy for a wide range of problems including depression, behavioural problems, addiction, family and relationship problems, anxiety, self-harm, phobia and stress related issues. Solution focused Brief Therapy spread to Europe and the UK with BRIEF being formed in London.
Solution Focused Hypnotherapy
When hypnotherapists began to be trained in the Solution Focused Approach the circle of inspiration had really turned full circle linking back to Milton H Erickson the hypnotherapist who inspired Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg!
Within the last ten years the number of hypnotherapists who have been trained in this approach in the UK has greatly increased. The approach is flexible and is as applicable to working with anxiety, phobia or depression as it is to exam performance or public speaking. Indeed the approach has been used successfully to maximise sporting performance both at the recreational and world championship level. I trained in Solution Focused Hypnotherapy at the Clifton Practice in Bristol in 2006 knowing the approach would be compatible with the evolutionary understanding of the mind which had interested me for many years.
Solution Focused Hypnotherapy: What to expect
a) Time spent discussing problem formation to be limited to understanding the difference between operating in problem formation mode and solution formation mode.
b) The formation or origin of a problem to be explained in terms of how the brain works. The influence of thinking styles will be discussed.
c) The therapist presumes you have inner strengths, potential, resources, creativity and life skills which you are not yet utilising.
d) Hypnotherapy is used in every session to lower anxiety, help you into solution focused mode and create the changes you identify at subconscious level with greater ease and rapidity. A CD is usually provided for use at home.
e) In second and subsequent sessions the therapist will ask you what has been different, what has been better even in very small ways and what might other people have noticed.
f) Creativity is increased and positive happy memories are accessed spontaneously and far more often.
g) Playfulness, lightness, laughter and creativity to be present.
h) Therapy is non-judgemental, encourages mindfulness and is respectful of your own wisdom.
j) Homework experiments are suggested by therapist with clients being invited to add their own. If a client wishes to substitute their own homework experiment for the one suggested that is welcomed.
k) NLP techniques will be used by most therapists in some circumstances particularly where phobic or compulsive responses are present.
The Solution Focused Mind
Before we look at how and why this is so let us take a moment to look at why the problem focused mind is so unhelpful.
The Problem with a Problem Focused Mind
When we feel threatened we run the ancient fight, flight or freeze response which kept our ancestors safe and is a valuable response in dangerous situations but this response is our “emergency button“. When we perceive a non-dangerous threat in modern life we still press our emergency button if our anxiety is at a high enough level when the following will occur:-
a) Our left brain capacity including our language faculty is greatly diminished and is calibrated to search for anything else which could go wrong (akin to a stone age man looking for more dangers).
b) The creative potential of the right brain is calibrated towards spotting more threats becoming ever more hypervigilant and creating more anxiety. Pattern matches to memories where an emotional not a logical match are made. This system of illogical pattern matching is very active in sowing the seeds of phobic responses or simply those times when we say to ourselves “I can‘t“. Evolutionary this emotional matching system is useful. For example, when a child burns itself for the first time it learns to be cautious around all sources of heat not just the one which caused the burn. It is emotional matching and feeling anxious too close to heat which allows the child to learn without the need for repeat burns. It is easy to see how helpful this response is in dealing with physical danger but how unhelpful when dealing with most 21st century threats.
c) In this mode the subconscious mind does what it did to keep our ancestors safe - it will reference back making an emotional match to the past. In this mode we are recycling a program and are not innovative thinkers - for innovative thinking we need to be in solution focused mode.
The benefits of The Solution Focused Mind
a) Our left brain intellectual and language capacity are fully available to us and are calibrated to deal with problems and make the most of life. We can train the left brain to take control in this way which includes the capacity to put itself in standby mode whilst we do something purely creative. We deal with things instead of sweeping them under the carpet. In solution focused hypnotherapy we greatly increase this capacity.
b) The holistic mind: The full creative positively focused potential of the right brain is available to us and working in synergy with the left brain. The left brain is able to go into positive standby mode whenever the positively focused imagination of the right brain is the better resource to problem solve or enjoy life. Anxiety levels are kept low ensuring our automatic thoughts are positive ones!
c) The subconscious mind will create and keep updating new positive reactions and thoughts to help us as we live our lives. Our thoughts are both realistic and inspiring. The mind working in synergy in this way can be awesome machine.
We produce lots of wonderful serotonin which allows us to feel we are equal to and coping with the challenges of life. There are hundreds of neurotransmitters but it would seem that serotonin is the “key in the door” of positive neurotransmission. Major players in the neurotransmission cycle are serotonin, noradrenalin and dopamine. Serotonin helps us to cope with life, noradrenalin is a motivating factor so we create successful action and when we feel successful we create dopamine which leads to more serotonin - so as you can see solution focusing is an important tool within therapy but also a skill for life.
When our neurotransmission operates properly we cope with life better and this also has physical benefits. When we generate the proper chemicals we deal with long term conditions including chronic pain better and we sleep better. Our parasympathetic nervous system is in control which means we are calmer physically with lower blood pressure, better immune function, better digestion and many other improved functions. Evolutionarily we are meant to have our parasympathetic nervous system in control most of the time as our bodies work better and age more slowly that way - to do that in modern life we need to focus on solutions. The sympathetic nervous system is there to be activated by our emergency button in dangerous situations - it was designed for infrequent use and rapid resolution with a return to intellectual and parasympathetic nervous system control. By focusing on the solution we are creating the equivalent of that rapid resolution!”
Solution Focused Hypnotherapy and Neuroscience: Some Supportive Research
Day dreaming is what the brain gets up to when it is not occupied by anything in particular. Marcus Rachie, a neuroscientist at Washington University, St Louis has carried out a lot of research into this area. It had been established that the brain uses a huge amount of energy in proportion to its dimension using even more than the heart and he wanted to know what caused such a high usage.
He carried out studies into this area of the brain which utilised so much energy which fires up whenever the brain is otherwise unoccupied. In doing so he discovered a new functional system within the brain - default mode.
Guilio Tononi of The University of Wisconsin-Madison was very excited by this stating “it’s not very frequent that a new functional system is identified in the brain…” Some neuroscientist assign the his new functional system the role of selecting memories and mulling over future possibilities and combining them into a personal narrative.
Rachie also used PET to find brain areas associated with words and noted that these areas active at rest became quiet as soon as the person began physical activity. In 1997 these results were collaborated by Gordon Shulman and he and Rachie published a joint paper in 2001 positing they had discovered a hitherto unrecognised default mode which the brain only sets aside when it focuses on something else. This work led Rachie to speculate that the default network might provide the brain with an “inner rehearsal” for future actions and choices. This concept fits in very nicely with the model of the mind that we work from as SFBTHyp in which the imagination is the rehearsal room of life. In SFBTHyp we assist the client to operate the power of choice by setting the default mode to work in solution focused mode.
As far as hypnosis goes the work of Woolley went further positing that brain studies including PET and EEG’s have shown the involvement of the anterior cingulated cortex, the thalamus and brainstem (ponto-mesencephalic) to be involved in the production of hypnotic experiences. The anterior cingulated cortex is active in novelty detection and dissociation from sensory input. Woolley notes “A conceptual framework has been proposed which integrates neurophysiology, systems thinking and psychology, as complementary factors in hypnosis (citing Hasegawa and Jameson 2002)”. As hypnotherapists we have long since understood that hypnosis is both associative and disassociative allowing us to let go of unwanted response patterns and to install new preferred responses, it is good that we now understand how this operates within the brain.
Written by and copyright belonging to Kay Cook Solution Focused Hypnotherapist of Bath