In EMDR therapy as well as mindfulness practices, clients are asked to develop dual awareness. Dual awareness is the ability to pay attention to one or more experiences at the same time. For example, being able to focus on a conversation you are having with your partner and having the recognition that feelings are being triggered that remind you of how you felt when your father didn’t listen to you. In this instance you have awareness of the present moment as well as a awareness of a memory from childhood.
Dual awareness is important because it assists you in managing overwhelming emotions, thoughts, and body sensations because you realize that the feelings, thoughts and body sensations are memories from the past but in the present moment you are safe. Dual awareness is about developing an observing self, at the same time that you are having an experience of something, even when that experience is a difficult memory. It assists you in being in the present moment so you are not overwhelmed by the memories of the past which present themselves through your emotions, thoughts, and body sensations.
When we have experiences in life, the brain creates neural pathways connecting memories of events to emotions, thoughts, body sensations, and behavior choices. As we continue to experience life, the brain is efficiently looking for memories that are similar. When it finds one that neural pathway is activated and you experience the same emotions, thoughts, and body sensations this unconsciously triggers you to engage in the same coping skills or behavior choices you did when you first encountered that experience. For example, when you were four you spilled a glass of juice on the couch, your mother got angry and yelled at you, you began to cry because you were scared and she yelled louder, this triggered you to shut down and isolate yourself, blaming yourself and telling yourself you are a bad person. Now every time you experience a failure or mistake in life, your brain is reminded of this memory on an unconscious level so you have the same reaction. Dual awareness helps you make connections between your present moment and your past so you can live in the present and not respond as if you were in the past.
One way of teaching this is through EMDR. For example, you might be asked to think of a mildly distressing event while being asked to notice your emotions, thoughts, and body sensations while at the same time being asked to notice where you are by observing the room you are in. This assists you in grounding to the present moment while assisting your nervous system in calming and regulating. If you continue to do this several times the distressing sensations and emotions will decrease. In EMDR we also utilize bilateral stimulation to create a new neural pathway between the distressing memory and the present moment. After processing related memories on the same neural network, a new network to the present moment will form. That means that now when you encounter an experience that reminds you of a past memory the neural network that is activated is the new neural network to the present moment where you were safe and had the internal and external coping skills to manage the experience and find relief. This enables you to make the connection to the past but to respond from a regulated nervous system and make behavior choices that are helpful for yourself and others.
Dual awareness is the ability to recognize that you are feeling upset in this present moment BUT that you are still safe in the present moment. So in the case of trauma memories, you can recognize that you are remembering an upsetting experience, and you are aware that in the present moment those dangers don’t exist, this helps you separate from the memory. It is an acceptance of the past and the present simultaneously.
This can also be done through mindfulness practices such as a mindfulness meditation. To do this you focus your attention on an object such as your breath, an image, a sound. When your mind wanders you observe the thought and then bring your attention back to the object. With practice, you will be able to see your thoughts come and go like clouds without being pulled into them and overwhelmed by them. The point of the meditation isn’t to get rid of your thoughts, emotions, or body sensations but to transform how you relate and respond to them. If you notice distressing emotions, thoughts, or body sensations do not repress or suppress them but visualize the observing self observing the distressed self. It may be helpful to visualize the observing self standing on a small hill looking at the distressed self on the grass below. Continue to visualize these two selves without judgement but with curiosity as both are within you. It is as if the observing self is in the eye of the storm, witnessing the storm but not being affected by it. Like any new skill this takes practice and can feel difficult at first. However, each time you practice it you strengthen the neural pathway to dual awareness and this calms the nervous system. With enough practice, it becomes a habit. That means in time you will recognize the emotion, thought or body sensation but will not be overwhelmed by it.