The curse of the human experience is this: very little of the suffering we endure is due to painful experiences themselves. Instead, we drive our own suffering by constantly dredging up the past and bringing it with us into the future, reflecting on our experiences in a painful way. People can certainly do things at times that cause us injury or drive us crazy, but once an event is over, so long as it doesn't maim, cripple or kill you, the only way it can continue to cause harm is if you bring a painful memory of it with you into the future.
Types of painful memories
There are two general categories of painful memories:
1. Traumatic memories
Traumatic memories form when an acutely stressful event carves out an indelible image in our mind. A car accident severely injures us. A bomb explodes nearby, leaving in its wake severe destruction and a parade of bloody victims. Living through a tsunami disaster. Getting mugged at gunpoint on the way to your car. These isolated yet traumatic events can form an indelible impression in your memory.
To use a rather bleak analogy, it's sort of like the shadows that were etched on the walls of brick buildings from the people who were incinerated when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima. An extremely stressful experience can be like an atomic bomb in our mind, and imprint us with a memory that hangs over our life like a shadow, showing itself at the strangest times and when we least expect it.
Traumatic memories form because an experience triggers acute stress. Under these extremely high stress levels, time seems to slow down. The gates that normally filter our sensory information swing wide open, allowing into consciousness every little detail. The hippocampus and memory centers of the brain also go on high alert to record everything that happens. While this type of hyper-arousal aids our survival in the moment, (it's good to pay attention to every little detail if your life is in danger), it can sometimes saddle us with too strong of a memory that leads to flashbacks and other problems.
2. Nagging memories
Nagging memories don't get the publicity that traumatic memories do, but they are far more widespread, and in our mind, even more problematic than trauma-related memories. A few hurtful words whose sting won't go away. The memory of a close friend's betrayal, perhaps the guilt that stays with you from a time you know you let someone else down. The memory of childhood abuse or past mistreatment. These are some examples of nagging memories.
Unlike traumatic memories, which become indelible because the experience was overwhelming and posed a very real risk of significant injury or death, nagging memories are often as much a problem of our psychology as they are events. In other words, their hurt is generally fueled by our flawed, irrational, or incomplete recollection of these events and the ideas we formulate about what they mean about us as a person. Nagging memories crop up when we have trouble reconciling an experience with our ideas about who we are or how the world should work.
Resources to help kids deal with painful memories: