Panic Room: Coping With Racial Trauma & Violation

Panic Room is a suspenseful movie that was released in 2002. The plot involves a newly-divorced woman and her eleven-year-old daughter who move into a four-story brownstone in New York City. In the house, there is a panic room intended to protect the occupants from intruders. The panic room is reinforced by concrete and steel on all sides and protected by an elaborate security system. The home is invaded by burglars, so the mother and daughter hide in the room.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the continuing impact of racial trauma on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Carter defines racial trauma as “the cumulative effects of racism on an individual’s mental and physical health.” Racial trauma is like an intruder that violates one’s consciousness and wounds the soul. Racial trauma can rob racially marginalized and oppressed people of their God-given sense of worth and dignity. 

There are ways in which survivors can cope and heal in the midst of race-based traumatic stress. Herein, I will offer some suggestions which are based on my clinical as well as my personal experience. I call it a six-piece tool kit of coping strategies. 

1.​ Know the Causes & Symptoms  

It is imperative that BIPOC recognize the causes and symptoms of racial trauma. The causes of racial trauma include exposure to racial or ethnic stereotypes, race-based fears about personal safety, witnessing members of a person’s group receiving abuse, racist abuse of loved ones, and others not taking experiences of racism seriously. The symptoms of racial trauma often mirror the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These include intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, avoidance, agitation, and depression. 

2.​ Practice Self-Care

As in any other area of traumatic stress, self-care is a foundational aspect of coping with racial trauma. Engaging in spiritual practices, journaling, exercising, resting, listening to music, and spending time in nature are just some of the many forms of self-care. In effect, racism says to BIPOC that they are inferior and that they don’t matter. However, when survivors of racial trauma are intentional about self-care, they are boldly declaring to the world, “My life matters!”

3.​ Unplug from Media  

In my estimation, various forms of media can trigger race-based traumatic stress. This is especially true in this age of social media. Therefore, BIPOC should feel free to curtail their media intake, or in some instances, unplug altogether. I can recall when the video of George Floyd being murdered went viral. I watched portions of the video numerous times. Then, I came to the point of emotional fatigue. The images of another Black man having his life snuffed out by a police officer were quite triggering to me. Therefore, I took a break from watching the video footage, lest I continue to be in great distress. 

4.​ Cultivate Friendships

I believe the Bible offers great wisdom in the area of cultivating friendships. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.” I have found that having empathetic friends or allies with whom to process the effects of racial trauma is very helpful. One does not have to go it alone. A true friend or ally can provide a safe space for one who has been traumatized. 

5.​ Express Yourself

Self-expression can be extremely empowering to one who has experienced racial trauma. As a resident of Louisville, Kentucky, I was both saddened and angered by the murder of Breonna Taylor. I needed to express the full range of my emotions. Attending local protests enabled me to do just that. Additionally, one may find volunteering for an organization focused on racial justice, speaking at a community meeting, writing an editorial or poem for publication are all healthy ways in which you can express yourself. 

6.​ Pursue Professional Help

There are times when the effects of racial trauma are so severe that therapy (or counseling) is needed. Pursuing help can be very difficult for BIPOC, given their history of being mistreated by health care professionals. That is why I recommend seeking the services of those who are culturally competent or those familiar with the psychological and physiological effects of racial trauma. Given the times in which we live, more and more clinicians are being equipped to effectively address issues related to racial trauma. 

It would be great if there were panic rooms into which people could run to be protected from racial trauma and violation. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. However, I have presented six strategies that can help racial trauma survivors to cope and build their resilience. Racism is endemic to American society. In light of this, I suggest a more proactive approach whereby BIPOC implement these strategies, knowing if they have not personally experienced racial trauma, they will likely do so in the future. 

By Joel A. Bowman    


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