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How exactly does trauma cause “schizophrenia”? A revised double bind theory

A double bind was originally thought of as something that happens in communication, especially parent-child communication, where a person gets two contradictory messages, and is also prevented from commenting on the contradiction.  As described in the double bind entry in Wikipedia, “this creates a situation in which a successful response to one message implicates a failed response to the other, so that the person will be automatically wrong regardless of response. The person can neither comment on the conflict, nor resolve it, nor opt out of the situation.” 

Double binds, when one doesn’t fully realize they exist, naturally lead to feeling and acting “crazy.”  They were theorized by Gregory Bateson and others to be the way parents for example might cause their children to become “schizophrenic.”  The theory lost credibility however when research failed to find a significant difference in the amount of double bind type communication in families in which one person was diagnosed with schizophrenia compared to other families.

But it may be that Bateson and others were right about the key role played by double binds, they just weren’t right in blaming family communication patterns as being the primary source of double binds.  Looked at more carefully, it becomes apparent that all sorts of traumatic situations create double binds for the person encountering them.

When a person has a traumatic experience, they typically experience two very contradictory needs. 

One is to NOT SEE the trauma – to not experience something so horrible, to hold onto a more pleasant view of the world in which such things don’t happen, to maintain the ability to trust others, etc.  This is especially critical for children, who have to be able to trust those upon whom they depend, even when those others may be emotionally, physically, and sexually abusing the child. 

The other of course is TO SEE the trauma – to reconstruct one’s view of the world to understand that such things can happen, and to severely reduce one’s level of trust, so that one isn’t surprised by such a thing happening again.  And to be hyper-vigilant for any signs it may be happening again.

In a state of high arousal or terror, it seems imperative to make the “right” choice, as being wrong means disaster.  And there is no time to really think the situation through, and so no time to really notice the contradictions in the demands being placed on one’s mind.  Instead, one feels torn into pieces.

This conflict can be perpetuated after the traumatic experience itself is over.  Trauma survivors with PTSD struggle with this in an obvious way – they want to stop having flashbacks, but on the other hand it is clear it doesn’t seem safe to forget what happened, so their brain constantly reminds them of it, however much they want the reminders to stop. 

In the case of people who  get diagnosed with PTSD, they at least can identify the pieces of the conflict – it is clear that the stuff intruding into their mind has to do with reminders of the trauma.  But sometimes, when trauma happened at a younger age, or was especially intense or overwhelming for whatever reason, the person manages to not even be aware of the connection between the current conflict in their mind and the original trauma.

So for example the person may avoid thinking about certain situation or themes or memory fragments related to the trauma, yet have intrusive thoughts about it in the form of voices, because the avoided situation must be thought about in one form or another.  The person then tries to avoid thinking about the voices, tries distraction etc., but it doesn’t work because there is also a need to face that which has been avoided. 

To a person caught in a double bind of which they are unaware, it seems as though their mind has turned against them – or even like they face an enemy inside that isn’t them at all, given that it seems to want the opposite of what the person consciously wants.  The person is just identifying with some of their needs, and experiencing the part of themselves that identifies with other needs as being alien, an enemy.   This enemy can be conceptualized as being a demon, another person’s mind, an actual alien, or even just as an “illness.” 

Recovery on the other hand requires owning both parts of the conflict, rather than just identifying with one side. 

I think the “accepting voices” approach does a good job of helping people find a way to face the situation that may have originally triggered the voices, rather than make the mistake of just focusing on getting rid of them, or of taking them too seriously. 

People can resolve double binds when they realize they don’t have a complete solution.  In regards to traumatic experience, we don’t have to completely block out memories of trauma or pretend it didn’t happen, but we also don’t have take the trauma that did happen so seriously that we remain perpetually “on guard” and distrustful the rest of our lives.  We can acknowledge the limits on the powers we have to protect ourselves, while taking up the powers we do have and doing our best to take care of ourselves and those we love.  We can let awful feelings and thoughts and voices, and memories of terrible things, into our minds, while also noticing that these things are only part of what is true, that love and hope exist as well.  We can learn to face the dark side without being overwhelmed by it.

Healing from a double bind involves acknowledging that the contradictory forces we feel within us are really all “us,” and that our true nature will emerge out of the tension between all the contradictions.  So there is no need to resolve what is truly “right” within us in a final sense, just what is right in the moment, knowing that in future moments, something else may be right.  Al Seibert pointed out that it can be very healing to notice that our whole organism is organized in terms of opposites, for example we have opposing muscle groups, one for example to bend our arm, another to straighten it.  Neither is “right” but rather each is an important part of us. 

Pushing people into double bind situations can make them “crazy” but if done more consciously, can also make them more spiritually aware.  That’s why zen teachers, in their koans, impose a kind of double bind on the students.  That’s also why, in the midst of working through trauma and psychosis, people can sometimes experience spiritual breakthroughs. 

I would like to see an awareness of double binds brought back into psychological discussions.  I’m curious to hear your comments.

13 comments… add one
  • Just a few of a whole lot of thoughts I have about this:

    The Wikipedia entry states that DBT “has only been partly tested”. I don’t know what has been tested, and what not, but usually human beings have a tendency to oversimplify things, so, probably what has been done is that they’ve counted the amounts of rather obvious double binds that occurred during a specific period of time in different families. While they just as probably have failed to look at the greater picture, like what those double binds were about. Some are simply verbal expressions, like the “You must be free” example in the Wikipedia entry. But what about the double binds that occur on a non-verbal level, and thus would be almost impossible to identify as such for a third, merely observing, party like a researcher?

    There’s no doubt that the world is full of double binds. Not only in family communication/politics, but certainly also on the level of communication/politics in general. – Or, at least that’s how I as someone who’s been confronted with double binds throughout my entire life perceive it. While Bateson also said, that these people are likely to see double binds everywhere, suggesting even where there were none… If I were to point out anything I’d like to criticize about Bateson it would be this, his mainstream-system-kind of invalidating the identified mental patient’s perception of the world – If a person can handle them, seems to me to depend on whether she was the victim of them, the non-verbal and difficult to identify version, from day one, or whether she was primarily a victim of verbal double binds from the point in her development where she entered language.

  • Dialogue has shaped a lot of the way I’ve seen this illness. If it can be called a brain disease, which I no longer believe. I know that if I were to seek advise from my father it would be “you need medication because you have a brain disorder” where if I were to talk to lots of other people they’d say “there’s nothing wrong with you at all. I don’t think you’re sick” you can argue that my dad knows me pretty well, but in some ways…he doesn’t know me….and it’s hard to know for yourself. So when someone is constantly emphasizing sickness and medication…it makes one feel helpless. I actually have been diagnosed with PTSD but nothing has ever been done about it in psychiatry nor has it even been approached.

  • Marian’s comment was interesting – seems to be pointing toward a kind of situation where if you notice a double bind, that proves you are crazy for being so sensitive! Kind of adds another layer to the bind…..

    “Anon” offers a comment that highlights some of the most common problems in the mental health system. One is the often repeated dogma that mental and emotional problems are a “brain disorder” – by which they mean, it’s something that can only be addressed by doing something directly to your brain, such as by ingesting medication. No wonder Anon says this induces a helpless feeling! The people who say it are most often people who are worried about what might happen if a person doesn’t take medications, and they don’t realize how much helplessness they are inducing. The thing about being diagnosed with PTSD and nothing being done about it is also common – in fact people often don’t even get asked about past trauma, so they usually don’t even get as far as the diagnosis of PTSD, at least if they have already diagnosed stuff like schizophrenia and bipolar. Sad.

  • Double bind is very dangerous when it is perfomed to somebody – who already has experienced this form of communication in their childhood.

    No zenmaster should ever have tried this metode – I nearly died form it… Instead IT hit my brother….

  • To Petra – I agree with you that double binds can be very dangerous, but I think not so much when they are faced in a calm way, as in Zen. Then people get them for what they are, they see through the binds, and are actually then more innoculated against the forms of double bind they might encounter in the world. At least, that’s my sense of it.

  • My brother who never shown a any kind of abnormalsy who is highly qualified orthopedic surgeon; suddenly shown a change in his behaviour who started talking which is quite out of subject, and also afraid of his own boss.Later he bacame voilent and started shouting at one night, we admitted him to a mental hospital there he got cured and become very normal as before but after one year because of one decision that he couldnt take without my parents opinion and my parents opinion was quite against him,that was a very small issue and again he got the mental unbalance that he had received previously also,he is a married person ,father of 1 year old and his histroy defines him as wise amongst general.He is again in hospital.Is there any permanant solution for getting a very good doctor back to his work without any hindrance without converting himself to animal??

  • Presently, the most significant double bind associated with “schizophrenia” is the general manner in which its treatment is undertaken by the psychiatric profession.

    The psychiatrist promotes that the individual has a brain disease of unknown etiology that requires a life long regimen of neuroleptic drugs.

    Both the “disease” and the drug treatment render the individual incapacitated.

    This is a double bind of epic proportion.

  • I already have posted something on this site of Ron Unger. Before 1999 for three years and a half I suffered in an open way a delusional paranoid schizophrenia, but with the help of a human psychiatric approach in Italy and several years of a psychodynamic psychotherapy I am fully recovered nowadays. In my years of therapy I always talked to my psychotherapist of situations of my past childhood and adulthood that were full of double bind communications between my mother, sometimes my father and me. Also in my autobiographic story that will be published in an english version within 2010, I hope, it is full with messages and situations of this kind.
    And my psychotherapist and psychiatrist in their years of work have always found this kind of messages been very true for schizophrenic persons. Not only Bateson wrote about it, but also Luc Ciompi in his book Affect and Logic!

  • I want to know if there is a group of people that I can share an experience,that I have lived , with someone who fits into this category.

    Similar to a group who helps family with Alzheimers .

    I have been a Care Provider for 10 years and have had experience with people suffering from different situations.

    This experience is very different but I have learnt from it and from my personal research.

    Thank you.


  • I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had a textbook schizophrenogenic mother. I suffered constant and sustained double bind situations for all my life. there is no doubt in my mind this is the trigger for schizophrenia.

  • Ungh…Interesting…what have you done about it?

  • Ron, I just found the original post by accident. I had an extremely traumatic experience in 2013. I have been diagnosed with PTSD and there was a point early on that I could not get the visuals out of my head however with several different methods I thought and I stress the word thought I had conquered the demon. 3 years later I have been having battles with depression and anxiety. I kind of figured my trauma had something to do with it but not as much as I do now. When I read your post especially the 9th paragraph where it states: “the person manages to not even be aware of the connection between the current conflict in their mind and the original trauma.” a lightning bulb popped up. I am glad I read this because it has turned a helpless situation along with frustration into one that can be worked on,. Thanks for the post

  • I have learned and been enlightened through this forum tremendously. I believe that schizophrenia is wrongly diagnosed often, because it’s considered a disease that is gene related. I’ve learned that my friend has had so many traumatizing incidents happen to him that his minds defense mechanisms created a false reality to deal with and accept what happened. His is diagnosed as schizophrenic and he truly is just traumatized. His brain is over loaded with memories of loss, hurt, pain and failure that he compensates for these things with made up beliefs. This double binding theory is right on the nose! However I believe getting to the root of the minds reasoning for this mechanism is most important.