Many people who have suffered severe and protracted childhood trauma and, as a result, go on to develop complex posttraumatic stress disorder or related conditions often feel permanently stuck in the past and unable to live in the present. Indeed, the past may seem more real and substantial than the present – in fact, what’s going on in the present may feel so nebulous and ethereal that it has little impact on how one feels; it is as if it isn’t really happening. Instead, one’s feelings and behaviours remain rigid and inflexible, fixed in place by one’s adverse childhood experiences, even experiences that happened years or decades ago. Indeed, something traumatic which happened ten years ago may feel more real and more recently occurring than something that happened five minutes ago.
In this distressing state, the individual may feel constantly hypervigilant, dissociated or fluctuate between these two extremes. Whilst these responses might have been adaptive responses at the time of the trauma if one’s situation is now relatively safe and secure and one has long escaped the traumatic environment, they may now be highly dysfunctional and prevent the person from living in the ‘now.’
For example, someone who, for years, was a child victim of his/her father’s physical violence may, long after s/he he has left his/her abusive childhood environment, continue to be frequently triggered when interacting with any male authority figures (even though they pose no threat) and react and feel as s/he did at the time s/he was experiencing the abuse. The effects of this might be dramatic, such as repeatedly getting into physical fights, walking out of jobs due to minor criticism from the boss or seeking oblivion from painful recollections of the past through drink, drugs, gambling, promiscuous sex or other behaviours that augment a dissociative state.
And, because these (now) unhelpful ways of behaving are so deeply rooted in past experience, they can prove hard to change whilst one’s traumatic experiences remain unresolved so one may find oneself constantly reenacting the past yet be unable to learn from experience even though such behaviour simply compounds the person’s emotional and practical problems. Such a person, also, may find they frequently suffer ‘flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares connected to their past trauma.
Such a state of being unable to feel properly engaged in the present is also frequently accompanied by a state of anhedonia.
How ‘Dual Awareness’ Can Help Us To Once Again Live In The Present
In order to free him/herself from the past, and from being constantly caught up in distressing emotions connected to it, such as fear and anger, and/or from being tormented by intrusive thoughts and memories, the individual must know, feel and believe, on a deep level, that s/he can do so in a safe environment such as with a therapist who empathizes with him/her and whom s/he trusts. In such an environment, sometimes figuratively referred to as a ‘holding environment‘, the individual can start to utilize a state called ‘dual awareness
A holding environment is a term originally coined by Winnicott who defined it as: “That aspect of the mother experienced by the infant as the environment that literally-and figuratively, by demonstrating highly focused attention and concern – holds him or her comfortingly…’
Bebette Rothschild defines ‘dual awareness as the ability “to recognize that I’m feeling upset right now…that I might even be having a flashback, but what’s going on with me right now has to do with something from the past, and I’m aware of where I am in the here and now, which is separate from that memory of the past.
This ability allows the person to start properly processing hitherto suppressed, traumatic memories that may be upsetting whilst ALSO understanding that, at the present time, s/he is not in danger. In other words, dual awareness involves, metaphorically, having one foot in the past and, simultaneously, having one foot in the safety and security of the present. Thus, s/he can revisit his/her traumatic experiences but his/her dual awareness (i.e.that s/he is presently in a safe and secure holding environment) helps to prevent him/her from being overwhelmed by distressing feelings which, without ‘dual awareness’ would make therapy and recovery more difficult.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).