When we encounter pain, our brain-mind-spirit system always tries to process the painful experience. There is a very deliberate pathway that this pain processing attempt will follow, and there are specific processing tasks that we must complete as we travel along this pathway, such as staying emotionally connected, navigating the situation in a satisfying way, and correctly interpreting the meaning of the experience. When we are able to successfully complete this processing journey, we get through the painful experience without being traumatized – we emotionally and cognitively “metabolize” the experience in a healthy way, and instead of having any toxic power in our lives, the adequately processed painful experience contributes to our knowledge, skills, empathy, wisdom, and maturity. That is, when we successfully process a painful experience we don’t just stuff it down into our unconscious, or teach ourselves to think about other things. We actually get through it, stronger and wiser.
Unfortunately, various problems and/or limitations can block successful processing; and when we are not able to complete the processing journey, then the painful experience becomes a traumatic experience and the memories for these traumatic experiences carry unresolved toxic content. When traumatic memories are activated, the toxic content they carry comes forward and powerfully affects our perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, abilities, and choices.
Under certain circumstances, and especially during childhood, we can fail to process painful events that may seem minor. This point has several important implications:
Psychological trauma can sometimes be caused by relatively small painful events.
Traumatic memories are therefore much more common than most people realize.
The manifestations of unresolved trauma can therefore be much more subtle than most people realize.
See chapter 1 for additional explanation, true story illustrations, and supporting research.