Getting Through Anniversaries of Traumatic Events: “Anniversary Reaction”

Recently, I was asked to give suggestions on how someone can get through the heaviness and intensity of a traumatic anniversary. No matter the type of traumatic event, and how it was experienced, an anniversary of a traumatic event brings feelings of dread, intrusive memories, and emotional disturbance. It is recommended for the individual to plan strategies to enable themselves to feel less isolated, overwhelmed, triggered, and distressed. These recommended coping strategies are not a “cure” or “solution” to feeling better when these anniversaries come, but rather provide the individual with positive coping strategies with the goal of enabling the individual to feel even slightly less distressed and overwhelmed – allowing the survivor to function.

Although every individual exhibits symptoms of trauma differently, there are common symptoms that indicate one is experiencing an “anniversary reaction”. Before figuring out helpful strategies/ approaches to get through a challenging anniversary, or time of year, the first step is recognizing the feelings one may experience.

  • Feelings of re-traumatization (such as intrusive memories, feelings of reliving the event).
  • Feelings of overwhelm and fatigue.
  • Avoidance (an individual avoids people, places, or events even remotely connected to that event).
  • Negative changes in beliefs and feelings (feeling increasingly disconnected from others as the anniversary approaches).
  • Feelings of being hyperaroused or keyed-up (feeling on edge in anticipation of the anniversary).

As Bessel Van der Kolk explained, “emotional trauma creates ‘issues in our tissues’, manifesting as physical symptoms such as migraines, nervous habits, tense shoulders/ neck/jaw, a sunken chest, and a heavy heart” (The Breathe Network). It is common for trauma survivors to display physical symptoms, which is a result of a somatic reaction to emotional distress and dysregulation; therefore, utilizing a combination of psychological and movement strategies, if possible, is highly encouraged. Since it is encouraged to implement psychological and movement strategies, the following list includes a combination of social, contemplative, and movement strategies:

Coping strategies:

  • Reaching out to one’s support system:
    • Sharing feelings or memories with someone you trust.
    • Spend time with family or friends.
  • Any activities that enable one to focus on something other than these memories (such as hobbies, social outings, self-care activities).
  • Contemplative activities like reading, thinking, or taking a walk.
  • Plan to volunteer, help others, donate on the day of the anniversary.
  • Mindfulness and movement
    • Yoga therapy
    • Meditation
  • Counseling/ Psychotherapy by mental health professionals offers the individual with a great source of support, especially during this time.
    • Individual therapy
    • Support groups

As a traumatic anniversary comes up, it is incredibly understandable why one may feel paralyzed with overwhelm and dread. The emotions that are triggered as an anniversary approaches can cause the survivor to remain in “survival mode”. When survival mode is prolonged, an individual’s energy is “focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leaves no room for nurture, care, and love. It means the mind is defending itself tirelessly, while closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine plan, play, learn, and pay attention to other’s needs”, as well as one’s own needs (Bessel van der Kolk, 2014). While recognizing the possibility for anniversary reaction/ re-traumatization, it is imperative for the individual to know they are not alone and can also be supported with the expertise of a mental health professional. If you or someone you know has questions, or is going through this incredibly challenging, but normal, experience, please feel free to reach out to the clinicians at Naperville Counseling Center.



References & Recommendations:

Bessel van der Kolk (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Group: New York, New York.