Thank you so much for asking this really important question.
Trauma anniversaries can be extremely painful. Triggers may come seemingly out of no where leading up to an anniversary of an event. This can be frightening, frustrating, or just plain inconvenient.
Anniversary reactions occur because of the way a traumatic experience is saved in memory and stored in our bodies and minds. Memories of trauma contain sensory information relating to the danger that the event involved. Such memories may produce strong feelings as well as bodily reactions around the anniversary of an event (even unconsciously) and a psychological reaction—like a spike in depression or PTSD—can be triggered by things such as weather, lighting, certain smells, or other seasonal reminders (e.g. back to school, the first signs of winter). While biologically this type of reaction is meant to be adaptive, as our body is trying to synthesize information and keep us safe, it can be challenging and confusing to work through now that we are no longer in danger.
You are not alone. Many struggle with similar things leading up to anniversaries of traumatic experiences. For example, a study conducted by the Yale University School of Medicine looked at anniversary reactions in veterans of the early 1990s Gulf War. The result? Anniversary reactions are real and occur in survivors of many different types of traumatic experiences. Some common symptoms reported in this particular study included: unwanted memories, getting easily startled by triggering stimuli, heightened avoidance of trauma-related stimuli, emotional distance, irritability, and disturbed sleep.
While you are certainly not alone, that does not make the challenges you face any less real or painful. So how can you handle your own anniversary reaction? Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., a psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, and our team recommend the following.
The first year after an event, it’s hard to know what will happen. But if you sense you might be vulnerable, or you’ve experienced an anniversary reaction before, do your best to plan ahead. Eliminate extra stressors—try not to move or change jobs around that time of year—and load up on seeing supportive friends and family. If you see a therapist, arrange to see them more frequently for as long as you need.
In addition to delaying stress and upping support, consider making a specific plan that relates directly to your loss or trauma. Get together with other survivors, do a ritual that honors the event, make a donation to a related non-profit, or sign up for an associated charity event. You might feel empowered, liberated, and connected to others who have had similar experiences to you.
3. Remember that it’s temporary
Anniversary reactions usually subside within a few weeks. For some, 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.
4. Find support.
If you weren’t fortunate enough to get help after the original trauma, or the help you got didn’t go so well, it’s common to feel frustrated or ashamed that you’re still dealing with your trauma years later. But it’s never too late to start looking for support. Shop around for a therapist or counselor that you like and trust. There are proven therapy techniques out there and medications that can banish nightmares and soothe other symptoms. With a skilled professional, some courage, and some hard work, your latest anniversary reaction could be your last.
5. Be gentle with yourself.
When we experience feelings and symptoms related to our trauma years later, it is easy to get discouraged, frustrated, and down on ourselves. Remember that your body and mind are trying to be helpful, even if they are causing you challenges in this moment. Speak to yourself kindly almost as you would speak to a small child. Try to increase the things you do during your anniversary season that make you feel good about yourself. One strategy may be to create a "crisis kit" where you put in a box things that bring you joy, soothe you, or stimulate positive memories. You can access this kit when times are particuarly challenging.
Overall, remember that healing is possible. I know it may be tough to imagine now, but overtime, your traumatic reactions during your anniversary period will decrease. We are sending you love and light as you prepare for this upcoming challenging season. You have all the tools within you to get through it, but you do not have to get through it all on your own.