“No, I haven’t written this week,” I told Geeta, “How’s it going for you?”

Six weeks after the fires that devastated parts of the wine country, I once again deflected the conversation away from me. Geeta is my writing accountability buddy in India. We talk weekly to discuss what we’ve accomplished and our goals for the next week.

During the fires, I knew I was in the acute phase of trauma. I admitted I couldn’t focus and had lost my motivation. It made sense to focus on helping my community and not worry about the progress (or lack of) with my book. On week six, I felt embarrassed to still be using the fires as an excuse about why I had lost the flow and wasn’t even attempting to resurrect it. I couldn’t “make myself” keep my commitment to write 30 minutes daily. Instead, I said to myself, “I’m just lazy.” “What’s wrong with me?” “I can’t do this.”

On week seven, I facilitated a conversation about the disaster for my spiritual community. Knowing that the greater community is going to be impacted physically and economically for years, I shared my concern that there was a communal denial happening. In the rush to go back to “normal” it seems that many don’t recognize that the trauma has deeply impacted them and isn’t a short-term experience.

A few days later, I found research that said that one of the symptoms of trauma is “having difficulty readjusting to home or work life.” I realized I was caught up in my own denial of readjusting to work.

That insight taught me that denial isn’t the correct term. When our brain state is such that we don’t, or can’t, function well, it isn’t denial. It is a brain state. It is just what it is. These are coping mechanisms from the aftershocks of trauma.

Your job is to stay in tune to the symptoms and help yourself recognize that this is your present moment. Only when you accept that you are in a less functional brain state can you choose another state. Or you may choose to stay where you are until you are more ready.

My readiness took seven weeks. The first few weeks, I recognized that my avoidance to write was a symptom of acute trauma. When I entered what I call, “phase two trauma,” I didn’t see it for what it was. Instead, my self-judgments got activated. I literally had to “make” myself write. I used tricks (set an alarm for 15 minutes in which I must write the entire time, not including googling research), barter (I can get up and get some tea after I write for 15 minutes) and bribery (if I do four rounds of 15 minute writing, I can have a piece of 75% chocolate).

Post traumatic stress is inevitable after a huge trauma. Our nervous system is designed to manage short term stress.  When it goes on for days, weeks or years (such as war time or ongoing abuse of any sort) the body begins to lose the the ability to cope. This is phase two.  In this phase, stress can get shoved into the nervous system impacting your overall mental and/or physical well-being. That’s when it can become a disorder.

If you notice phase two symptoms as they occur and find ways to soothe or cope that help minimize them, you have a much greater chance of letting go and healing. The symptoms may be similar to the acute phase but are not identical.

  • Worry much of the time
  • Pulling away from loved ones and friends
  • Lack of motivation or interest in normal activities
  • Unexplained aches and pain
  • Low or no energy
  • Overeating
  • Excessive smoking or drinking
  • Use of recreational or prescription drugs (more than usual)
  • Guilty feelings (even when you don’t know why)
  • Feeling helpless and/or hopeless thoughts
  • Thoughts of suicide or harming oneself
  • Fantasies about harming others
  • Excessive absence from work or school
  • Difficulty adjusting to work or school

Healing comes in waves. Experiencing any of these occasionally is normal and OK. If they go on for a long time, seek professional or spiritual support. Do not ignore or tough it out.

Joy is a brain state that creates a moment of openness. When you relax and let down your guard, you also open to a possibility of inner peace. Even if it only lasts a moment, you have the potential to begin to heal and not have longer term symptoms.

Joy is life’s rainbow. It is a promise and a reminder that life will return to a new normal. No matter the extent or how unwelcome the changes are and will be, a state of calm, acceptance and joy will be available again.