Have you ever felt something wrong? Maybe out of nowhere you begin to feel heightened sense of anxiety or suddenly are having nightmares of things you thought were in the past. Oftentimes, when we look at the calendar, we begin to realize there is a reason for this. The anniversary of a traumatic event is coming up.
When we experience traumas such as death, sexual assault, abuse, assault, car accident, and many others, our bodies store the trauma and in this same way remember it. Exposure to trauma results in our bodies “being stuck” in fight, flight, or freeze mode. Repeated exposure to trauma or the memories results in our bodies remaining in this mode. Triggers come from the reaction our body and brain has seeing a threat, whether real or perceived. If you have ever had the feeling of something being off and then seen an anniversary date approach, this is what we refer to as Anniversary trauma, still in its early days of research. A common example used that was experienced by vast numbers of people are the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. For those of us who were alive that date, we felt trauma to various degrees and most of us have heightened awareness and perhaps even trauma and triggers as we approach that date every year.
But what we do not spend nearly enough time on is how our bodies react to our own personal traumas. I have often spoken to clients who discuss how they are having a hard time and not sure why. As we process through this, we often find that there was something traumatic that had happened around this time of year. In a similar way to how certain places or experiences trigger us, particular calendar dates, seasons, and holidays can have a similar reaction. These triggers around anniversary trauma include things such as depression, restlessness, increased or decreased appetite, insomnia, outbursts of anger, panic attacks, and hypervigilance.
These are just a few of the responses to triggers. These responses to triggers often feel like they are just adding to an already stressful situation, they are really our body trying to protect itself and warn us of danger. A traumatic event can seem like our body failed and the retriggers are our body trying to protect ourselves the second time around.
So how do we deal with this?
As cliché as it sounds, one of the most important things is self-care. We hear this term a lot and most people immediately think of journaling or mediation, but in reality, it is anything that creates a feeling of peace. This is different for everyone, but can be activities like exercise, puzzles, reading, knitting, gardening, or any other healthy hobbies or activities. Self-care lets us teach our bodies how to be at peace which lets them have something to recenter themselves when those triggers arise. Self-care can help our minds and body relax and to learn strategies on how to lower our high levels of vigilance.
Secondly, working with a trained professional is also important to have support, but more importantly to learn skills to help with coping, awareness of ongoing retraumas or potential retraumas, and then the establishment of a toolbox to manage these emotions. When it comes to anniversary trauma, creating awareness around the potential triggers as well as how to manage expectations, avoid particular situations and triggers, and how to best equip yourself for those particular dates and times is key.
A., V. der K. B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.
Hamblen, J., Friedman, M., Schnurr, P. Anniversary Reactions: Research and Findings. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (http://www.ptsd.va.gov)
Texas A&M University. (2016, December 9). Can you unconsciously forget an experience?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 21, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161209081154.htm
Va.gov: Veterans Affairs. Trauma Reminders: Anniversaries. (2018, August 7). Retrieved April 22, 2022, from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/what/anniversary_reactions.asp#:~:text=Anniversary%20reactions%20usually%20make%20symptoms,the%20time%20of%20the%20event.
This month’s post was written by our Trauma Specialist, Laura Valiukenas, MSW, LCSW.