At first glance, they couldn’t appear more different. Martin Luther King Jr., an African-American Civil Rights titan, using non-violence and media exposure to advance policy for improving the plight of Blacks in America. Chris Kyle, a Caucasian-American Navy SEAL sniper, working in secret to violently disassemble terrorists networks a world away. Despite these differences, they shared a common history and sadly a common end—violence being the thread to bind their stories.
Their lives, lessons in different forms of patriotism, shed just as much light on trauma’s impact on people repeatedly exposed to violence. Trauma has become something of a buzz word in the world of healthcare and sometimes leaves the public minimizing the day to day impact it has on the details of a person’s life.
Trauma is any experience that makes a person feel his life or the life of someone he loves is in serious danger. When a person is “traumatized” it reflects both the actual experience and a person’s perception of it.
Reactions to trauma are generally best captured by the diagnosis Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—a set of symptoms that leaves a person frequently reliving their trauma and constantly looking for threat in an attempt to avoid further danger.
These symptoms can look very different depending on the person, but the sheer intensity of the symptoms sometimes leaves outsiders wondering can one event have that strong of an effect on someone. Even more insidious is the belief that we are immune from the same response if exposed to a traumatic experience.
What makes trauma such a powerful force is its ability to compromise our sense of safety. While physical safety may be a concern, it is the undermining of psychological safety that feeds the long-term consequences.
We experience psychological safety every time we arrive home and believe the people who greet us are supporting our best interests or when we understand that obstacles to our goals reflect more about what we are up against than about our personal inability to achieve. Psychological safety is an ability to face challenges and risks with healthy coping strategies and preserved sense of self-worth.
The catalyst for healing and growth from traumatic experiences is finding meaning in trauma and support to learn healthy ways for channeling the pain that these events cause. The pain that both Dr. King and Chris Kyle experienced at the hands of violence at home and in war zones abroad was evident in their splintering homes and at times tumultuous relationships.
For Dr. King, it renewed his commitment to leading a non-violent movement that would reshape the racial relations of America. Chris Kyle returned to America and found solace in supporting the healing process of other veterans.
Their traumas, initially harbingers of self-destruction, transformed into stepping stones for building the lives of others while slowly securing their personal psychological safety. These are lessons that call us to fully appreciate the impact of trauma on who a person is and who he can become.
Dr. Isaiah Pickens is a clinical psychologist who trains health professionals and teens on psychological trauma and suicide prevention. He is the founder of iOpening Enterprises, a multimedia company specializing in developing entertaining and educational stories for teens, young adults, and the adults who work with them. Follow Dr. Isaiah Pickens @PickensPoints.