I was recently in a seminar on polyvagal theory ( and trauma when I was struck by how much the science which informs our understanding of psychological disorders has changed over the years. Being Polyvagal: The Polyvagal Theory Explained – Windhorse Integrative Mental Health – Windhorse Integrative Mental Health 

As I look back to when I first began training in 1978, it is obvious that recent advances in neuro-biology have been extraordinary. In short, we have gone from thinking of emotional problems as originating in the brain to understanding that, in most cases, environmental trauma is the culprit.  Indeed trauma damages the brain, specifically the vagal nervous system and hippocampus.

Nonetheless, scientific progress and innovative therapeutic techniques notwithstanding, the basic goal of psychotherapy has remained the same: To help people live more rationally in the presentBecoming Reasonable: Updating our Notions of Mental Health and Counseling. | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (revmichaelheath.com)

Today, while the expressions of ” being present “or “living in the  present” are frequently used in the media and are promoted by mental health professionals, , what it actually means to live in the present is sometimes confusing. How to Live in the Moment: 35+ Tools to Be More Present (positivepsychology.com) 

Basically, being present means being able to be attentive to and to be aware of our own immediate experience. When our focus is on the present, we are then able to fully engage with others.  While it sounds simple, many people have a hard time being present.  With that in mind, there are two obstacles which prevent us from being emotionally  present.

Guilt, Despair and Anger about the Past

One sign that a person has trouble living in the present is that they are consumed with something that happened in the past. They are emotionally haunted by experiences from which they can’t escape. For example, past trauma affects the way we feel and corrupts our entire perceptional apparatus i.e. our senses, as well. The distortions created by shocking events, in turn, damages the area of the brain (the hippocampus) involved with  judgment which can make things appear worse than they are in reality.

For example, when a parent experiences the death of a child, they may blame themselves and feel guilty even when they were not to blame. For most, the grieving process helps a person to work through and eventually accept the reality of the loss and resume living in the present .  Not so for others. The intensity of the loss destroys their sense of meaning to the extent that they believe that life will never have meaning again. This sense of grief and despair over past loss keeps them from being able to be open to the present.

Fear and Anxiety about the Future

Another way that past trauma may affect a person emotionally is to corrupt their confidence in the future.  Rather than being imprisoned in the past, the loss of meaning can prevent some from having hope for the future.

Instead of looking forward to things to come, some become anxious about what terrible thing could happen next. As a result, much time is spent imagining/anticipating negative possibilities which, like being stuck in the past, prevents simply living in the moment and enjoying the present. Fear, rather than calm, blocks our ability to feel happy and content and connect with others.

Assessing “where” You Live

If you wonder if living in the present is a problem for you, here are some questions to ask yourself: What is your mood ?  What are you thinking about ? Do notice your surroundings? If you are with someone, are you really listening to what they are saying ? Are you responsive to what is being said ?  You get the idea.

It should be noted that it is also important to understand that no one is present in the moment all of the time. Realistically, we all get caught up in regrets or grief or guilt over the past. Likewise, we sometimes worry about unpleasant things that could happen in the future.  The relevant question here,  is ” How much and how interfering are your non-present thoughts?” .

When one is not pre-occupied with things of the past or worries about the future, one is free to notice and appreciate the joys of life  and truly connect with the people they love.  If you would like to learn how to be more present, don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist. S/he can help you be more available to the moment by freeing  you from the pain of the past and dread of the future.

Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC.                                                5 17 2022

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