One of Milton Erickson’s most frequent interventions was to give the symptom as a task and alter the task in some way. For example, he might instruct a nail-biter to bite their nails at a specific time and to bite each nail for a certain length of time. Assigning the problem behavior as a task changes the context through which the behavior is filtered.
The purpose of task is to question old behavior patterns, loosen belief systems or build skills that are helpful in having the client solve their own problem. Tasks can reframe a compulsive symptom or behavior into a scheduled task. By demonstrating that the symptom can be consciously controlled, it can break the belief that the symptom or behavior is uncontrollable or unstoppable.
Another frequent “symptom as task” assignment involved attaching some unpleasant behavior to the symptom, especially if the symptom was a bad habit. Erickson sometimes prescribed healthy behaviors, such as walking, in this way. So, if a client wanted to stop smoking, Erickson might explain that they could smoke but they needed to buy one cigarette at a time and walk to the store each time they wanted a smoke. This both encouraged healthier behavior and altered the typical behavioral pattern. Rather than try to eliminate a symptom or behavior Erickson would often demonstrate that there is a choice on when a symptom or behavior manifests.
If you were forced to eat your favorite food would it be so enticing?
How to change a behavior with a task assignment
- Think of an unwanted behavior.
- Design a task that alters the behavior pattern in some way. For instance, if a person has a fear of public speaking, find out in what order the symptoms occur. Have the client imagine (first person) speaking in public and having the symptoms occur in a different order.
Below are some specific ideas that can be used to alter a symptom or behavior.
- Time of day
- Location in the body
- Jumping to the end
- Adding or subtracting elements
- Breaking up large pieces of a sequence into small pieces
- Performing the symptom without the pattern
- Performing the pattern without the symptom
- Linking the pattern to another (usually undesired) pattern (symptom-contingent tasks)