Anniversary Reactions to Trauma
Updated: Jun 26, 2021
For those of you who have experienced trauma in your life, you may not be aware that your body can experience similar emotions, sensations and feelings on or around the anniversary of the date the trauma happened to you.
You may feel things like: anxiety, sadness, a heavy feeling on your chest, panic attacks, sore eyes, insomnia, headaches, feeling like you might cry, feelings of not being safe or stress in general. You may have thoughts of who was around you, at that time, where you were and maybe some memories of the event may come back to you.
When trauma occurs, the body stores memory of the trauma. When we experience distressing or unsettling thoughts, feelings or emotions in the lead-up to an anniversary of trauma, it can be due to something known as the anniversary effect.
Trauma can be a shared experience (like a national event or disaster) they can be personal traumas (like the death or sickness of a loved one) birthing trauma or trauma as a result of violence or perhaps events like war or a car accident. You can even experience trauma from intense emotional events like: deception, abandonment or betrayal from a loved one.
Anniversary reactions can be triggered by things like: the season or time of year, the location the trauma occurred, a person involved in trauma, a particular date or time of day or even things like smells or food.
More often than not it can be difficult to understand why we may be feeling distressed if we are experiencing anniversary trauma. It is very common for an individual to experience somatic or bodily sensations before they have a cognition or thought process around what is happening to them. This could be linked to the way we experience trauma when it occurs to us. We will feel scared, anxious or panicked before we have a complete cognition about a traumatic event. Our bodies will react first. (I’m sure you’ve heard of the fight, flight or freeze response).
Bodily reactions can come in many different forms and can be different for each individual, however it is likely that you will re-experience sensations and emotions that are the same or similar to the ones that you felt at the time the traumatic event occurred. Reactions can be intense and they can vary in nature from mild or severe. It is important to know that this is a completely normal response to trauma.
Some common anniversary reactions or sensations include:
Decreased or increased appetite
Feeling emotionally numb
Bad dreams or nightmares
Sadness or Depression
Anniversary reactions and their symptoms fall into three categories:
You may have a re-triggering or re-experiencing of the physiological responses, feelings, emotions and thoughts that occurred for you at the time of the traumatic event.
For myself; I usually feel a sense of dread or anxiety in the lead-up to the day my son had his open heart surgery. I have also experienced a panic attack on the date the surgery took place.
Arousal is when your body experiences stimulation of the sense organs through the nervous system and is related to wakefulness or alertness. For many on the anniversary of a traumatic event it is common to feel “on edge”, anxious or nervous. Sleep may be affected as well as concentration and you might have an increase in anxiety or things like insomnia. You may be hypervigilant, irritable, angry or feel a bit jumpy.
Someone who has experienced a home invasion may have trouble getting to sleep at night for fear it might occur again and things like unfamiliar noises may trigger a stress response.
A lot of people try to avoid trauma-related stimuli around the anniversary of their trauma. They may avoid people, places, situations or things that are connected with the trauma in some way.
An individual who has lost someone in a plane accident may avoid flying in general, or at the time of year they lost a love one.
These feelings and symptoms may occur out of nowhere for you. They might happen suddenly and you may not be able to explain why you are feeling like this. You may feel strange, as these symptoms may not be able to be explained by events that are currently happening in your life.
If you do ever happen to feel disturbed or distressed and you can see no other explanation, try sitting with yourself and thinking back to see if anything significant or traumatic has ever happened to you historically at this time of year.
Some things that you can do to feel better include:
Identifying potential dates that may affect you, and try to come up with an “action plan” before the date arrives. Be mindful that you may be a little bit more sensitive around these dates, or that you may need a bit more support than you usually would.
Self-love and self care. Be gentle with yourself and do things that bring you joy. It is helpful to write a list of things that make you feel relaxed, energized or happy. It can be hard for us to think of ways to make ourselves feel better when we are already upset or distressed, so having this list written out before the anniversary will not only help you to deal with your anniversary trauma, but will also help you to implement self-care strategies at other moments in your life where you may be feeling down or stressed. You can read more about self-love here. Or check out the Be Light, Shine Bright Podcast episodes: Burnout and Self-Care or Self-Love.
Avoiding high stress situations at this time of year. Take it easy on yourself. Don’t force yourself to be around people who are not compassionate or who would usually cause you to feel any measure of stress.
Try to do something nice. Something that elicits opposite emotions of the event that occurred to you. Change the energy of this day, by filling it with good, calming or happy memories. This may be difficult for you to do in the earlier years after your trauma, so be gentle and go as slowly as you need to.
A ritual of release or “letting go” may help you. Some individuals like to write things down and burn them, others like to plant a small tree or place flowers in the water by the ocean. The physical act of the ritual may help you to process the trauma in a different way.
Reach out to trusted friends and loved ones and let them know that you may need to lean on them at this time. I strongly suggest reaching out to someone that you can trust implicitly, count on, and who has been there for you historically.
I highly recommend talking to someone like a mental health professional, who will be non-judgemental, have positive regard for you and will more than likely have some healthy strategies that can help you. Sometimes having this safe space to talk leads to a sense of catharsis and release and you will also be able to rest assured that they will keep your emotions, feelings and experiences safe and confidential.
Try to remember that you are not alone. It is completely normal to experience anniversary reactions no matter how long ago the event occurred.
If you would like to listen to an audio rendering of this information I recorded a Be Light, Shine Bright Podcast episode about Anniversary Reactions to Trauma that you can listen to here.
Hamblen, J., Friedman, M., Schnurr, P. Anniversary Reactions: Research and Findings. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Herman, J. (2015). Trauma and recovery. Basic Books.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.