Anniversaries are usually a celebration. They are a way of marking the times in our lives and keeping track of forward progress. Anniversaries can also be a reminder of the past, and when that past is not pleasant, the anniversary can be anything but a celebration
It can be hard to forget something very traumatic that happened to you, especially when the same date comes around every year. Sometimes even the season can be a reminder of that terrible time. When forgetting is not possible or not healthy, you have to shape how you approach the anniversary so as not to get dragged back into the past.
The Effects of Trauma
The effects of experiencing or even witnessing a traumatic event vary, but in the extreme, they can be quite serious. Your experiences help shape brain development over time. Children can be the most vulnerable to trauma, although its effects may not be seen until much later in life.
Children exposed to five traumas before the age of three have a 76% chance of developing learning disabilities. They are also at an increased risk of substance abuse and addiction. Each separate instance of trauma counts, even if it is a repeat of the same type of trauma. A child who loses a parent, witnesses a vehicle accident, sees a neighbor killed in a fight, gets hit by their older brother or survives a house fire is at risk in the same way as a child who is the victim of physical abuse on five separate occasions.
Exposure to trauma, especially early in life, can lead to a number of problems and deficits, either immediately or later in life. Those problems can include:
- Emotional outbursts — Experiencing trauma can leave a lasting fearful feeling that affects all aspects of a person’s life. They may be easily triggered to respond with a disproportionate amount of anger or frustration. They may be guarded at all times believing no one will protect them and no place is truly safe. People who experience trauma can have trouble expressing or even identifying their own emotions. Some find it so difficult that they tend to ignore or avoid any emotional impulses they might have.
- Unhealthy relationships — When trauma creates an unstable home life for a child, they do not develop a proper sense of trust and self-esteem. Their ability to form attachments to other people, including family members and friends, can be stunted. As an adult, this child may struggle with relationships. Without healthy relationships, most people have trouble controlling their emotions and are more vulnerable to stress.
- Lack of impulse control — Experiencing a trauma can give an intense feeling of helplessness and being out of control. That lack of control sometimes persists in other stressful situations. The victim of a past trauma may be easily triggered and impulsive. They can have difficulty thinking through their actions and may not be able to relax once they are wound up. Their behavior could be unpredictable, confrontational and aggressive.
- Dissociation — A trauma can be so severe, mentally if not physically, that the person experiencing it separates from the incident. They may not be able to recall the details of the incident or may remember it as if it were not happening to them. This is a defense mechanism they may use throughout life when faced with a stressful situation. In its extreme, dissociation can cause a loss of certain aspects of a person’s self-awareness or personality.
- Limited cognitive function — Repeated or prolonged exposure to trauma can result in limited abilities to solve problems, reason or think clearly. Children have trouble learning and may not succeed academically. It can be hard to take in new information because the brain is partially stuck in stress-response mode.
- Low self-esteem — Traumas involving interpersonal relationships can result in a lowering of the sense of self-worth. Often victims of this type of trauma turn their anger inward and blame themselves. They experience shame and guilt around the traumatic events that can be triggered long after the trauma is over. They generally have negative expectations of the future, and these feelings can lead to depression.
Generally, the worse or the more prolonged the trauma, the more severe the effects can be, but there is really no way to predict the results of witnessing or experiencing a trauma. In some cases, the effects are not seen until months or even years later.
Anniversary Reaction Symptoms
A trauma anniversary could elicit unexpected reactions. You might expect to feel sad on that day, but instead find that you are angry or agitated. You may experience a response that doesn’t feel emotional at all. On your trauma anniversary, you might be tired and have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning.
Trauma anniversary reactions vary widely and can sneak up on you. You might think you are healed from the trauma and that the anniversary will not mean anything to you. You might begin experiencing strange symptoms days before the anniversary and not know what is happening to you.
In general, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) anniversary reactions represent an intensifying of anxiety or other symptoms associated with PTSD. A trauma anniversary reaction can include any of these:
- Isolation — As the anniversary day approaches, you may become more withdrawn. You may want to avoid any mention of the trauma, including comments from friends that are meant to be supportive. Your subconscious thought may be to hide from anything related to the trauma to avoid any and all emotional triggers.
- Heightened anxiety — You might find it increasingly difficult to focus around the trauma anniversary. You could be more anxious and edgy than usual. You may display more anger and aggression than normal, but not know why. You may engage in obsessive compulsive behaviors and feel ill at ease most of the time.
- Flashbacks — On your trauma anniversary, your memories of the event could intensify and become more vivid. You might feel as if you are reliving the event in your mind and feeling the intense emotions all over again. You might even have physical responses to these traumatic flashbacks.
- Negative thoughts – Your demeanor could become increasingly negative around your trauma anniversary. Some of the feelings of guilt and shame you experienced could return, and your thoughts about the future may turn dark.
It is natural to have a reaction to your trauma anniversary. It does not mean you have not made progress in your healing or that you have to start all over again. You just have to be patient with yourself and accept this as part of the healing process. Healing is still taking place when you have these reactions.
Helping a Loved One Through Anniversary Reaction Grief
It can be difficult to watch someone you love go through tough times. When someone you love is suffering, you want to take their pain away, but there is often nothing you can do. Your feeling of helplessness might even be exacerbated as the anniversary of an accident or other traumatic event gets close.
You cannot heal someone else’s emotional pain, but there are some things you can do to make the trauma anniversary a little easier for your loved one. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are trying to help:
- There is no standard timeframe for emotional healing. Everyone goes through it at their own pace. Trying to rush the process or skip some steps will not help, and it might make things worse. No one is in a bigger hurry to move past this trauma and its effects than your loved one. Do not try to impose deadlines on them. Instead, be patient and supportive.
- Do not be afraid to talk about the problem or ask your loved one how they are feeling. Acknowledge that the upcoming anniversary could be hard for them, and offer your assistance in any way possible. Let your loved one guide your support by asking how you can help them get through the tough days.
- Understand that your loved one may need time alone to grieve, especially around the anniversary. Do not be offended if they ask for some space on that difficult day. It does not mean you are not important to them. Being alone might be the only way they can be comfortable, not knowing how extreme their reaction might be to the trauma anniversary. Try to give your loved one the space they need if that is what they ask for.
- Offer some suggestions for how to mark the anniversary. You could engage in some type of healing ritual if your loved one needs help putting the trauma behind them. You could also offer to distract them from their thoughts on the anniversary with some fun activity. A little advanced planning will make this day of heightened tensions a little less awkward. Both you and your loved one will know what to expect.
- Reassure your loved one that you are there for them no matter how they react to the trauma anniversary. They may harbor the fear that if they have an extreme reaction, you will be afraid, lose your patience or pull away from them. Now is a good time to remind your loved one you are there to help them heal no matter how long it takes.
- Realize that your loved one is a little more fragile around the anniversary. They may be dealing with nightmares and sleep deprivation. They can be more irritable than usual or even excessively emotional. Try to acknowledge what they are going through and give them a break. Do not take their moods or what they say too personally.
You may not realize it, but your support makes a big difference. There is no way to measure the value of your love. You have to take it on faith that even when your loved one doesn’t seem to be getting any better, they are, and having you by their side is helping.
PTSD Anniversary Reaction
A key component to PTSD is repetition. Memories of the traumatic event are repeated in the brain as if they are on a film loop that just keeps playing but never gets to the end. These memories can be partial, physically inaccurate and more emotionally intense than the actual event. They also tend to pop up randomly as nightmares or flashbacks.
At first, everything you see, everywhere you go, might remind you of the incident. Over time, certain specific triggers will emerge, like a particular sound, place or smell. Healing your PTSD involves desensitizing these triggers so they do not interfere with your daily life. Eventually, you will be able to put your memories of the event away and only think about them when you choose to.
No matter how far along you are in your PTSD treatment, the anniversary of the incident can still be a strong trigger. Somehow, your brain knows the date even when you are not conscious of it, and it can pull you back into old thought patterns that elicit painful emotions. The anticipation of your anniversary reaction might even threaten to undo all the progress you’ve made in healing.
You do not have to lose ground in your healing on this anniversary. Here are some strategies for coping with anniversary reactions:
- Replace bad memories — It will take time to heal, but eventually, you can choose which parts of those memories you hold onto. Maybe you remember the trauma for the strength you developed in your healing, but you let go of some of the more painful details. If your trauma involved a vehicle, you may want to create some new happy memories involving a vehicle that can replace the old ones. Decide when it is time to move on and make this anniversary mean something positive to you.
- Talk to your family — Let the people who are close to you know how you feel about this anniversary. They probably have some memories of their own. By talking about the trauma anniversary, you can release some of your anxiety and pressure surrounding it. Your loved ones might give you a new perspective on the anniversary from their feelings. The conversation will reiterate their love and support for you at a time when you really need it.
- Get your needs met — Figure out what you need to get through this anniversary. Do you need to acknowledge the trauma and your struggle, celebrate a milestone in your healing or grieve some more? Is it time to ignore this anniversary and just concentrate on something happy? Decide what you need and then enlist the help of your friends to make it happen
- Care for yourself — Good self-care is the basis of all emotional healing. Recognize that your trauma anniversary could be a difficult time for you and balance that with some extra caring for yourself. Be sure you are getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and reducing stress in your life. Around your anniversary, plan to treat yourself to some special activities, and be sure to include spending time with family and friends who are loving and supportive.
- Talk to a professional — Do not wait until you are in the midst of an anniversary-triggered crisis. Anticipate the possibility that this anniversary will be difficult for you, and talk to a grief or trauma counselor about it. They can help you develop a strategy to lessen the impact of the anniversary, and their guidance can protect you from a relapse in your healing.
Standing up for yourself and facing this trauma anniversary will show you how far you’ve come in your healing. You do not have to be afraid of your emotions when you enlist the help you need to move forward in your life.
Trauma anniversary symptoms tend to clear up within a couple weeks. Many people who have experienced a trauma go through some type of heightened sensitivity around the anniversary date. As subtly as the symptoms arise, they will fade away on their own.
The key is to find a way to hang on through the anniversary period, and many people do that with rituals. It might sound spiritual or hokey, but a ritual is simply a routine that you repeat to mark an anniversary. It can be some activity that indulges your memories of the event, or it might be something that distracts you from the emotional overwhelm.
There are many cultural mourning rituals that you can use as a basis for creating your own. Mourning rituals like wearing black, visiting graves or sitting up all night with grieving relatives are more public displays of grief. You can create a more private ritual and choose whether or not to include other people. Here are some ritual ideas:
- Visit the site of the trauma
- Listen to a certain song
- Re-read newspaper clippings about the event
- Visit a place that reminds you of your life before the trauma
- Prepare a special meal to celebrate your healing
- Call someone who was an important part of your recovery immediately following the trauma
- Visit someone who cared for you immediately following the trauma
- Spend some time with someone who was also part of the trauma
- Participate in an activity you had to re-learn after the trauma
- Plant flowers or a tree in memory of the event
- Watch a movie that makes you laugh
There are infinite possibilities for creating your own ritual to mark the trauma anniversary. In time, the ritual you practice might change based on your healing. After a few years, you may realize you no longer need to visit the site of the trauma because you have really put it behind you. Or, it may take you several years before you can visit that place. In the meantime, a different ritual will work for you.
The whole point of creating a ritual for your anniversary is to gain some control over your memories. You get to decide what you want to remember and how you want to remember it. There is comfort in repetition — you know what to expect. Your emotions may not feel under control yet, but you can know what you will be doing on your anniversary and why.
Contact 12 Keys for more information about coping with trauma anniversaries. We can give you and your loved ones the guidance you need to get through these tough times and continue moving forward with your healing.