Three Ways to Manage Anniversary Reactions

An anniversary of a significant incident, such as the loss of a job, parent, or other tragic events, can trigger mental and physical reactions. Learn three ways to manage your own anniversary reactions.

Three Ways to Manage Anniversary Reactions

Over the past week, I have seen countless posts and re-posts on social media from friends and former colleagues. Many were remembering the anniversary of the COVID-related lockdowns and life changes in 2020. Some were tongue-in-cheek, some were full of fear and uncertainty. At least one of my friends said he was avoiding Facebook to keep from seeing the posts.

These significant life events, as experienced differently as they are, will have different impacts on people. Some can just say to people “Remember when we….” and go along their way. Others will relive the pain and struggle by these anniversaries. While no reaction is better or more poignant than others, it is helpful to remember that our own reactions may not be shared by those surrounding us.

A Tale of Two Homes

For instance, in my own home, my husband has been working from home in a job that easily transitioned to our home office. An introvert by nature, he has relished the quiet and solitude of the experience. Even we as look to move to a new home in the coming months, we prioritized a work-space for him to continue working from home as long as possible. The anniversary of the start of his work-from-home experience will likely pass and go unnoticed, other than a joyful memory of working in sweatpants and eating leftovers more easily for lunch.

My past year has not been the same as my husband’s. I wrote about the struggle of being an extrovert working from home, last week. Plus my in-person work dried up and my pivot to on-line work took months to figure out. Add in losing my mom to COVID, and you can say that 2020 was my own annus horribilis. In the words of Queen Elizabeth, 2020 is “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure…” I have survived this year, but the memories of how will not bring me joy.

So how can we acknowledge the year without adding to whatever negative experience has marked this occasion? I’ll show three ways we can take care of ourselves and those around us. I hope that if you’re in the same boat as me, you will find a way to acknowledge….and move on.

What is an Anniversary Reaction?

What I have experienced, and others with similar experiences, is called an anniversary reaction.

According to Ellen Hendriksen, “The anniversary reaction is the annual echo of a trauma or loss, such as the death of a beloved, a nightmarish experience like sexual assault, a near-fatal accident, or military combat. Regardless of what happened, the anniversary reaction is specifically timed (hence the name), emotionally complex, and truly distressing. Moreover, it’s common; some researchers think the anniversary reaction should even be an official symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

As the anniversary approaches, our bodies can respond even when we’re not mentally thinking about it. Hendricksen continues, “Along with the mind, the body remembers, with the not-so-coincidental occurrences of physical problems like cardiac events, pneumonia, and pleurisy (that’s inflammation of the tissues that line the lungs—I had to look it up, too).”

In 2019, as the first anniversary of the college closure was approaching I could sense that something was different about me and my body. I felt more tense, unable to relax. My thoughts were scattered, unfocused. And I could not stop clenching my jaw.

I knew then, as I know now, that I had to acknowledge the pain, stress, and anxiety the event had played on me. Knowing I have done it once has prepared me for this experience.

Identify Your Timeline

Lilly McGee, from the Resilient Brain Project, suggests that our past experiences may give insight into how we deal with past traumas and significant incidences. She suggests, “Create a timeline of your difficult periods and see if there’s a pattern. In some cases, it may be indicative of seasonal affective disorder, but it may also be due to a trauma anniversary.

“Once you’ve identified the patterns, look at how your anniversary reactions affect you. Some people become incredibly fatigued at a certain time of year, needing more time off of work and struggling to accomplish basic chores. Others withdraw from social contact, or conversely, become hyper-engaged in their social lives. Every person’s reaction looks different. When you identify yours, you can take more effective steps towards treating it.”

For me, this has involved being aware of significant events that I missed last year, such as our gay men’s chorus performances, and the deaths of people due to COVID that impacted me personally.

Cut Down on Social Media

Bridget Freer, a psychotherapist with the Awareness Centre, suggests that preparing ourselves for anniversaries through social media and news outlets. She continues, “Be aware not just of your own anniversaries but of any public traumas, such as terrorist events or natural disasters that will receive massive media coverage, possibly including distressing imagery, which could trigger your own personal memories. Limit your watching of TV, reading of newspapers and visiting Internet news sites around these times.”

I have changed my social media memories to avoid certain dates from the college closure, so I don’t see them accidentally. This has helped me tremendously.

Remember That It’s Temporary

While we’ve had a year turned upside down, we may have more acute memories we’d like to avoid or forget. Dr. Hendricksen reminds us that “Anniversary reactions usually subside within a few weeks. I’ve worked with patients whose anniversary distress can last as long as a season, but most have a tough couple of weeks and then come out the other side noticeably lighter. Knowing there’s a light at the end can make the tunnel less frightening.”

This year, I had social media reminders about the last concert I rehearsed but didn’t perform. I had to remind myself that these posts were part of my past, sit in the discomfort, and move on. I miss performing a great deal but know there is a light at the end of the tunnel, with a new vaccine effort underway.

One Final Reminder

Some people, like my husband, did not experience personal loss in the same way that I did. And those of us who did experience loss, whether a job, personal friendships or relationships, or the loss of a loved one, will have different reactions to this shared experience. Knowing yourself and what you need is the key to finding peace or stability again.

Bridget Freer, from the Awareness Centre, reminds us that, “Loss affects each of us differently, and there is no set amount of time in which you “should be over it”. If you feel overwhelmed or that you cannot get through this anniversary, it might be a good time to talk to a mental healthcare professional. With a skilled professional using some techniques specifically designed for PTSD, and a lot of courage and a little work from you, your most recent anniversary reaction could be your last.”

Right now, regarding my anniversary reactions, I am checking-in with myself. Asking myself how I am feeling. Monitoring my own emotional responses. And preparing for tough days in the coming months, regardless of how COVID appears around the country. I know and understand that this year will continue to bring me reminders of the past year but I am prepared for it.

I hope the same for you.

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