The Pain Processing Pathway
When we encounter pain, our brain-mind-spirit system always tries to process the painful experience. There is a very particular pathway that this processing attempt will follow, and there are specific processing tasks that we must complete as we travel along this pathway, such as maintaining organized attachment, staying connected to the event (not disassociating), staying connected to people/God (staying relational), 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.
For example, let’s say Sharon, a hypothetical five-year-old girl, is engaged in an energetic game of chase with the kids in her neighborhood when she gets knocked over by an over-enthusiastic eight-year-old boy. She tumbles to the ground, unfortunately landing on hard, bumpy asphalt instead of soft grass, and therefore tearing her brand-new jeans and scraping her knee. As she sits up, she notices that her knee stings, but at first, she is mostly startled. However, when she sees that her favorite new jeans are torn, and when she glimpses honest-to-goodness blood through the tear in her jeans, she jumps up and runs home, alternating between crying and wailing. Fortunately, her father is home and has good relational maturity skills, so when she comes running in, wailing about her bloody knee and her “totally ruined favorite new jeans,” he puts her in his lap, wraps his arms around her, rocks her gently, and reassures her with quiet words of comfort.
Sitting in his lap, encircled by his safe, strong arms, and hearing his reassuring voice, she feels connected, protected, and comforted. After she calms down some he asks her about the accident, and she tells him about the adventurous game of chase, about the dramatic collision with the huge third-grade boy, about the hole in her favorite jeans that Mom had just gotten for her the day before, and especially about her bloody knee. As he listens to her patiently, with clear interest and concern on his face, she feels heard, understood, and cared for. He eventually cleans the scrape, lets her choose which colorful bandage to use, and in response to her continued distress about the hole in her jeans, he reminds her that she is supposed to change into her play clothes before going outside to run with her friends. She says, “I’m sorry,” he says, “I forgive you,” and then he reassures her that they can patch the torn jeans right away and also eventually get her another pair of nice jeans for special occasions. Finally, he comments that she is certainly brave and strong to have been playing chase with third graders, and then encourages her to go back outside and rejoin the game. When she is hesitant, he gives her some additional coaching about how sometimes we get hurt when we play rowdy games, but that we don’t want to miss all the fun just because we’re afraid of getting an occasional bump or scrape, and he takes her hand and walks her back to the other end of block where her friends are still playing.
Instead of turning into trauma, the fully processed painful experience becomes an opportunity for her to learn and grow. It’s obviously not a big event, but it contributes to a deepening intuitive awareness that she can turn to others for help when she encounters painful situations that overwhelm her. It contributes to her growing confidence that she can participate in adventurous activities, and that even if she takes a few hits she can get back up and keep on going. And it contributes to her experiential belief in grace and redemption – even when she makes a bad choice (like going out to play in her brand-new jeans), she will still be loved, she can be forgiven, and the practical damages can usually be salvaged/repaired.
Another good example is childbirth. The majority of women who go through childbirth say that it is the most physically painful experience of their lives; however, most of these women are not traumatized by this intense pain. When they have a supportive spouse and/or supportive friends and family with them, they feel connected and cared for. When they have appropriate medical care and reassurances, they know that they are not in danger, even though it really, really hurts. And they are encouraged by knowing that the pain has a beautiful purpose (as opposed to being demoralized by suffering that seems confusing and pointless). Women who feel safe, connected, and supported through the process admit that it is one of their most painful experiences, but claim that it is also one of the most profoundly deepening and growth-producing experiences of their lives.
Unfortunately, various problems and/or limitations can block successful processing. When we are not able to complete the pain-processing journey, then the painful experience becomes a traumatic experience, and the memory for this traumatic experience will then carry unresolved toxic content.
The way in which failure to complete the pain-processing journey creates traumatic memories and the way in which traumatic memories carry unresolved toxic content have very practical implications for our day-to-day lives. Every time something in the present activates, or “triggers,” a traumatic memory, the unresolved toxic content comes out of where it’s stored and becomes part of what the person thinks and feels in the present. And this coming forward of incompletely processed memory content into the present causes a wide variety of problems, such as addictions, mysterious physical symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, impaired parenting, difficulty receiving new truth, impaired discernment, an endless variety of subtly dysfunctional behaviors, and blocked peak performance.
Recognizing that psychological trauma comes from a failure to successfully complete the journey through the pain-processing pathway leads to a very important point regarding what kind of experiences can end up being traumatic. This point is discussed in much greater detail in Outsmarting Yourself, but the short summary is you don’t need the overwhelming negative emotions and physical pain of military combat or tsunami disasters to create psychological trauma. In fact, if you are a child without anyone in your community who can help make sure you get through the processing pathway successfully, and a painful experience presents a challenge where your personal processing skills are especially weak, even a fairly minor painful experience can result in psychological trauma.
Most of us can easily believe that a soldier might be traumatized by seeing his best friend blown to bits by a hand grenade, and we can understand how this soldier might have a panic attack when Fourth-of-July fireworks trigger his combat trauma. But it is easy to miss how small painful events, especially in childhood, can cause minor trauma that affects us in much more subtle ways.
An alternate version of our hypothetical five-year-old Sharon story provides an example. In this sad version of the story, Sharon comes running home with her mixture of wailing and crying, but her irritated father meets her with, “What’s the matter now? I’m in the middle of a project and you’re supposed to be playing with your friends – can’t you take care of yourself and stay out of trouble for ten whole minutes?” And when she starts to whimper about the hole in her beautiful new jeans, he responds with even more frustration, “Oh, great! And you’ve managed to ruin the new clothes that I worked hard to pay for and that your mom just got for you yesterday. Go wash off your knee, and to teach you a lesson you have to put those jeans back on and wear them every day for the rest of the weak. Wearing your new jeans with a hole in the knee will remind you to be more careful. And if you ruin any more of your new clothes, I’ll really give you something to cry about!”
In this unfortunate scenario, with her angry father adding to her pain and confusion instead of comforting her, encouraging her, and coaching her regarding how to handle the minor mishaps of childhood adventures, Sharon will certainly not be able to successfully process the experience. This painful experience will be stored as a small but significant childhood trauma, and whenever it gets activated its subtly toxic thoughts and emotions will come forward with a variety of negative effects. For example, she will be hesitant to engage in activities that are more adventurous, for fear of having an accident that might make somebody angry, and when she encounters difficult situations in the future she will be afraid to turn to others for help, for fear that she will receive anger, blame, and punishment instead of assistance.
As you wrestle with whether or not to accept this very important point regarding how small painful events can cause minor psychological trauma (and also the associated logical implication – that psychological trauma is therefore much more common than most people realize), make sure to note that our formulations of “trauma” and “traumatic” are fundamentally different from the ways most people use these terms. “Traumatic” is often used synonymously with “disastrous,” “life-threatening,” “catastrophic,” and other terms you expect to see on the front page of the newspaper, and most definitions of trauma focus on the magnitude/intensity of the painful event. However, our definitions are based solely on whether or not the person successfully processes the experience. Trauma is a painful experience that has not been successfully processed. That’s it.
This means that no matter how bad the experience is if it successfully completes the journey through the pain processing pathway, then it will not be traumatic. And no matter how small a painful experience is, if it does not successfully complete the journey through the pain processing pathway then it will be traumatic, and this minor trauma will have negative, ongoing effects on the person (even though the effects may be subtle).5
My own childhood experience provides another example of how small painful events that are unsuccessfully processed can become minor traumatic memories, and how these traumatic memories, even though minor, can have lasting negative effects.
On my grade-school playground, there was a lot of cheating. The biggest, toughest kids were particularly prone to cheat since no one could stop them, and they found ways to cheat in most of the games we played. They might add points to their scores if they were losing, they might make up new rules that gave them a needed advantage, or they might simply insist that they had made it safely to first base when we could all see that this was not the case. The scenario that bothered me the most was kids cutting in line during batting practice. Each time they finished their turn at the plate, the three or four toughest fifth graders would appear to go to the back of the line, but then every ten seconds or so they would cut forward by three or four kids. Day after day I would stand in line, watching these toughs cut in front of me, knowing that there was nothing I could do about it unless I wanted to get beaten up. And the gym teacher never seemed to notice that these guys got to bat four or five times as often as the rest of us. He was the person with the size and the designated authority to maintain appropriate order, but he did nothing to protect the smaller, more vulnerable kids (like me).
As a result of being unable to successfully process these experiences, bitterness, judgment, feelings of powerlessness, and feelings of helplessness remained in the memories of these events. Then, for many years (until this stuff got resolved), whenever I encountered situations in which others were cheating, and especially situations in which others were “cutting in line” in one way or another, the toxic content carried in these unresolved playground memories would come forward and I would become both very miserable and very unpleasant to be with.
For example, when we would come to a construction zone where some drivers were using the “merge” lane as a personal bypass lane, and zipping to the front of the line where they were cutting in front of those of us who had been waiting in the good citizen lane for the last forty-five minutes, I would have a sense of being helpless and powerless, I would feel intense anger toward the cheaters, I would feel intense frustration toward “somebody” for not imposing order and fairness in the situation, and I would go back and forth between fuming (with lots of words I won’t use here) and indulging in a macabre little daydream. My little fantasy was that the government would pass a law making it legal to blow these people up, and I would get one of those rocket launchers you can hold on your shoulder (you know—the ones you always see the special forces teams using in the action movies). Then, when one of these guys zips by in the cheater lane, I would lean out my window and send one of those little rockets right through his rear license plate and into his back seat. KABOOM! One less cheater! And then we would roll the burning wreckage to the side of the road and put a sign on it: “This is what happened to the last guy who used the merge lane for a cheater lane.”
Charlotte, on the other hand, was an example of how a person might react in this situation if she were not being affected by old trauma. Charlotte could acknowledge that it was frustrating to see people whizzing by and then cutting in at the front of the line and that these people were being inconsiderate, but she wasn’t all bent out of shape. Her attitude was more along the lines of “We can’t do anything about it, so we might as well make the best of it—let’s just enjoy being together while we’re waiting in line.”
Furthermore, she would even offer charitable thoughts regarding the cheaters, such as “They might not be maliciously inconsiderate—maybe they just haven’t learned the maturity skill of being able to wait for their turn—maybe being able to go to the front of the line will prevent them from hitting their children when they get home,” or “We don’t know what’s happening in their lives—maybe they’re single parents who’ve had especially hard days, and just can’t deal with waiting any longer in the ‘good citizen lane’.” And then she would make additional gracious suggestions, such as: “Even if they do know what they’re doing, we could be part of the solution by choosing to forgive them and pray for them.”6
Unresolved trauma coming forward and blending with our experience in the present especially causes and/or exacerbates relational conflict, and this applies to every kind of relational conflict you can imagine – marital discord, conflicts between family members, conflicts between friends, conflicts in church, conflicts on the mission field, conflicts between neighbors, conflicts between employers and employees, conflicts between professional colleagues, conflicts between students and teachers, conflicts between warring tribal groups in Africa, conflicts between Arabs and Israelis, and conflicts between drivers in the good citizen lane and drivers using the merge lane to cut in line.
Healing for Traumatic Memories
The good news about the pain processing pathway and traumatic memories is that each time a traumatic memory gets activated we get another chance to finish the processing. Isn’t this great? Instead of just failing the test we get to keep taking it until we pass! Thank you, Lord, for making this gracious provision by allowing unresolved memories to get triggered over and over and over again until we finally resolve them.
If we haven’t acquired any additional resources since the time of the original trauma, this actually isn’t very good news – we just feel bad, get stuck in the same places once again, and eventually, put the unresolved content back into the same old traumatic memory file. However, if things have changed in good ways (for example, our maturity skills have grown, we are surrounded by supportive community, and we can connect with the Lord), we will be able to successfully complete the processing tasks, the traumatic memory will be permanently resolved, and it will no longer carry any toxic content that can cause trouble by coming forward and blending with our thoughts and emotions in the present.
First, the bad news: traumatic memories can be difficult to access, traumatic memories are difficult to modify, and the processing tasks necessary to resolve the toxic content carried in traumatic memories cannot be successfully completed unless very specific conditions are in place and unless very specific resources are available.
However, the good news is that traumatic memories are consistently accessible under the right conditions, traumatic memories are consistently open to modification under the right conditions, and toxic traumatic memory content can be consistently resolved when the right conditions are in place and the necessary resources are available.
This all leads to a very practical and very important bottom line: If we want to strategically design a psychotherapy or emotional healing ministry intervention that consistently accomplishes permanent resolution for traumatic memories, we need to:
- figure out, and then intentionally set up the conditions necessary for accessing traumatic memories;
- figure out, and then intentionally set up the conditions necessary for traumatic memories to be open to modification; and
- figure out, and then intentionally set up the conditions and provide the resources necessary for the person to successfully complete unfinished processing tasks.9
The Most Basic Immanuel Approach Process Components
More good news is that God already knows about all of this – he knows about the pain processing pathway, he knows about failed processing as the source of trauma, and he knows how to facilitate remedial processing. And he wants to help us get healed. If we are able to perceive the Lord’s presence, establish a connection with him, and receive adequate assistance from him, this potentially complicated process can become very simple. He can help us access our traumatic memories, he can help us set up the conditions so that they can be modified, and he can help us successfully complete the remedial processing that will transform them into fully metabolized experiences that will then contribute to knowledge, skills, wisdom, maturity, and compassion.
God can care for this process, without us needing to provide the resources or manage any of these details.
One of the most exciting developments with the Immanuel approach is that we have discovered several simple tools that enable most people to consistently perceive God’s presence in some tangible way, and then to establish an adequate interactive connection with his living presence. And this interactive connection with God then provides the context for engaging directly with him, so that he can help us to access our traumatic memories and finish the remedial processing tasks.
Adequate interactive connection: So, what is an “adequate interactive connection?” I am experiencing an interactive connection with the Lord when I perceive His presence in some way and it feels true that we are having a living, real-time, mutual, contingent interaction, and contingent interaction means that our responses are directly related to (contingent upon) what the other is experiencing and communicating. When I am experiencing an interactive connection, it feels true that the Lord sees, hears, and understands the emotions and thoughts I am experiencing and communicating, and it also feels true that he is offering contingent responses to my emotions and thoughts. And an adequate interactive connection is an interactive connection that is sufficient to enable the person to accomplish the task immediately in front of her. A perfectly clear, maximally strong, fully functional connection is obviously ideal, but an adequate connection is an interactive connection in which the person perceives the Lord clearly enough, allows Him to come close enough, feels a strong enough emotional connection, achieves enough synchronization, and is able to receive enough help to enable her to take the next step forward.
An experience I had several years ago provides a good example of a contingent, interactive connection with the Lord. My friend Thomas died in his sleep after fighting through 35 years of severe chronic mental illness. He never did anything important in the eyes of the world, but I think he was a hero. In my assessment, few people have done so well carrying such a heavy load.
In spite of 35 years of suffering from severe mental illness that medication was only partially able to control, he remained faithful to the Lord. Most people with chronic mental illness use alcohol and/or street drugs to numb the pain, but Thomas never did this. In fact, not only did he not spend his money on pain-numbing substances, but he intentionally lived extremely simply, so that he could have money left over from his welfare income to give to the church. This is just one of the ways in which he was quietly heroic. Several months before he died, I asked him: “Thomas, how do you cope with all the suffering in your life?” And his reply was, “I focus on Jesus – every day, all day long. If it wasn’t for Jesus, I couldn’t do it.”
Several days after Thomas died, I was out on my exercise walk. I had learned that I could use the simple tools from the beginning of the Immanuel approach (just mentioned above, and to be described in more detail below) to connect with Jesus during my exercise time. So, I applied them, finishing with welcoming the Lord to be with me and asking him to help me perceive and connect with his living presence. The moment I finished the prayer a spontaneous mental image came into my awareness, and in this image, Jesus was walking beside me, enjoying the weather, with the kind of smile you see on the face of someone who’s walking with a good friend on a beautiful day. The image was very faint (as is usually the case when I perceive the Lord’s presence); but even though the image was so subtle, somehow it also felt one hundred percent true and real. After walking along for a while, just enjoying Jesus’ quiet, smiling, friendship presence, I commented (in my thoughts): “Lord, I’m so glad that Thomas is with you now.”
This is hard to describe, but I was facing forward as I was walking, and my mental image of Jesus was that he was in my peripheral vision, just as would be the case if a friend were walking beside me in the “real” world. Immediately – the moment I had finished making this comment about Thomas – I “saw” Jesus’ head turn towards me,12 this big grin broke out on his face, and I sensed the clear response, “So am I!” And then, “He has fought the good fight and has finished the race. He is here with me now – his suffering has ended, and he is being rewarded for his heroic faithfulness.”
All readers will probably recognize that the conversation between Jesus and me about Thomas was an interactive connection, but some may miss that an interactive connection was present even before the verbal communication. From the moment I became able to perceive his presence, an interactive connection was established as non-verbal contingent communication began flowing back and forth between us – just as is normally the case when two friends walk side by side without talking, communicating in many subtle ways that they are aware of each other and glad to be together. For example, every so often I would turn my head towards Him, just the slightest bit, and a quick smile would flash onto my face spontaneously and involuntarily, indicating that I was aware of His presence and that it was giving me great joy to have him walking beside me. And before I was even finished with my quick, subtle gesture, His head would flick just the slightest bit towards me and He would flash His own smile, indicating that He was also aware of my presence, that he noticed my smile, and that He was also glad to be with me.
From the first moment that I perceived his presence until after our conversation regarding Thomas had ended, this was an interactive connection where it felt true that Jesus and I were having a living, real-time, mutual, contingent interaction – where it felt true that we saw, heard, and understood each other’s emotions and thoughts, and where it felt true that each of us was offering contingent responses to the emotions and thoughts that the other was experiencing and communicating. (The point here is that the interactions in an interactive connection can be subtle, and often occur without any explicit verbal exchange. I don’t want you to miss interactive connections with the Lord just because they don’t include communication with words.)
Getting back to the Immanuel approach: as just mentioned, we have discovered several simple tools that enable most people to consistently perceive God’s presence in some tangible way, and then to establish an adequate interactive connection with his living presence. And this interactive connection with God then provides the context for engaging directly with the Lord, so that he can help the person to access her traumatic memories and finish the remedial processing tasks.
What are these tools for perceiving God’s presence and establishing an adequate interactive connection with him? Subsequent chapters will describe and discuss these simple tools in much greater detail, but here is a very short summary: 1) Help the recipient to reenter the memory for a previous positive connection with the Lord, and then to deliberately stir up appreciation for this experience. This strategic positive memory recall and deliberate appreciation prepares her brain- mind-spirit for connecting with God in the present. 2) Coach her to make a heart invitation welcoming God to be with her, and to make an explicit request that the Lord help her perceive his presence and establish an interactive connection. This simple prayer seems to help the Biblical truth and promise that Jesus is always with us to manifest more tangibly. And 3) Coach her to describe whatever comes into her awareness, regardless of whether or not it makes sense or feels important. This pulls her mental content through the front of her brain in a way that helps her to feel and recognize subtle manifestations of the Lord’s presence, and that helps her to feel and recognize subtle manifestations of an interactive connection.13
With the most basic version of the Immanuel approach to emotional healing, all the facilitator needs to do is:
- Establish the foundation for the session by using the simple tools just described to help the recipient to perceive God’s presence and establish an adequate interactive connection with him;
- Coach the recipient to turn to Jesus, focus on Jesus, and engage with Him directly at every point in the session, regarding every issue that comes up, and regarding every difficulty that arises;
- Help the recipient to connect with Jesus inside any traumatic memory that comes forward, and then coach her to turn to Jesus, focus on Jesus, and engage with him directly at every point, regarding every issue, and regarding every difficulty as the trauma is processed;
- If the person is not able to connect with Jesus when she first goes inside the traumatic memory, if she loses her connection with Jesus at any point later in the session, if the process becomes stuck for any other reason later in the session, or if you feel like you are getting in over your head, use the “safety net” troubleshooting tool (help the recipient return to the initial positive memory, appreciation, and connection with Jesus, and then, in the context of this safe and comfortable place, coach the person to engage directly with Jesus regarding the point of difficulty).
- If you are running out of time and the traumatic memory is still not fully resolved, use the end of the session “safety net” (help the recipient return to the initial positive memory, appreciation, and connection with Jesus). Even though she was not able to fully resolve the trauma, she will be fine if she ends the session in a positive memory, feeling appreciation, and connected to Jesus.15
Even More Good News – It Actually Works!
The really good news is that these principles and tools are more than just hopeful theory. We have been using the Immanuel approach for several years now, and the results have been very encouraging. Closest to home, we have found this approach to be wonderfully effective for our own, personal healing work. It has been effective for resolving major issues, such as the attachment trauma I received from an extended separation from my parents when I was two years old; and it has been effective for resolving trauma from much smaller painful events, such as my experiences of childhood injustice when the bullies on my grade-school playground cut in line during batting practice.
We have found this approach to be wonderfully effective for our emotional healing work with clients, and people in our mentoring groups have consistently been experiencing powerful healing with the Immanuel approach. Some of these people have even been willing to release recordings of their sessions to provide encouragement and teaching resources for others.
Furthermore, we have observed that a number of private practice clients and mentoring group participants who had previously been stuck for many, many sessions have begun moving forward with the Immanuel approach. Charlotte and I have used a variety of emotional healing tools over the years, and in our experience, the Immanuel approach has been the easiest to use, the safest, and the most effective.
This excerpt is taken from The Immanuel Approach: For Emotional Healing and For Life written by Dr. Karl Lehman, specifically, chapter 2.