The Anniversary Effect
Jennifer L. Rolnick, Psy.D.
“What the mind has forgotten, the body remembers long after.” ―Lilias Folan
With September 11th here again, I am finding reminders of the tragedy from 2001 everywhere around me. This morning, fellow gym members were discussing their memories of hearing about the plane crashes. While describing their varied experiences, some who witnessed the events from New York City, some from their televisions from across the country, all re-experienced some of what they felt that day 14 years ago.
Many of us who witnessed 9/11, whether directly or indirectly, can vividly recall our memories of that day. Where we were. Who we were with. How we felt. What we did during and after. In recalling your memories of that day, you may notice some uncomfortable sensations in your body. Maybe you get the urge to cry and feel intense sadness behind your eyes. Maybe you get that same heavy feeling in your gut you felt when you first heard the news. Or perhaps a headache similar to the one you had from so much crying. Or you feel the tightness of anxiety in your chest from worrying about your loved ones whom you couldn’t get in contact with right away. The physical reactions we experience are our body’s memories of that day. Yes. Our bodies have memories. And they are important to listen to.
The anniversary effect, or anniversary reaction, is a set of unsettling feelings, thoughts or memories that occur on the anniversary of a significant experience. The experience can be anything from a national tragedy to a personal loss or significant life change. These reactions take place when the body remembers the anniversary of a traumatic or significant event. Anniversary reactions can be initiated by anything associated with the time the trauma occurred including, the season of the year, weather, a particular date, or hour of the day.
Anniversary reactions are not always easy to pinpoint or put words to like September 11th may be. With September 11th, we have external reminders (i.e. from media coverage) that tell us why we are experiencing these cognitive and physical reminders in the week leading up to 9/11. The media and national processing of the anniversary helps us put words and a story to that experience. However, most often, we experience somatic (bodily) reactions before we have a cognitive awareness of why we are feeling that way. This is because significant and traumatic events are experienced in our bodies first. For example, we feel scared before we think about the fact that a lion is chasing us down the street. Our bodies react first.
Somatic reactions can come in any forms and they are different for everyone. You will likely re-experience similar body sensations and emotions you felt at the time of the event. Anniversary reactions can range in intensity from mild to severe. And it is important to know that THEY ARE NORMAL.
Some common anniversary reactions/sensations are:
- Feeling exhausted
- Stomach aches
- Panic attacks
- Difficulty sleeping
- Bad dreams or nightmares
- Sadness or Depression
- Decreased or increased appetite
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Difficulty concentrating
Symptoms of anniversary reactions to traumatic or significant events can be in three different categories: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, and arousal symptoms.
Re-experiencing. It is common to have a re-activation of the feelings, physiological responses, and thoughts that occurred at the time of the event. For example, on the anniversary of a sexual assault, a survivor may feel frightened, anxious and unsafe.
Avoidance. Avoidance of trauma related stimuli is very common. People may avoid situations, people, places, or things connected with the event. For example, a survivor of a car accident may avoid driving on the anniversary of the accident.
Arousal. It is common to feel nervous, on edge, or anxious around the anniversary of the event. Sleeping and concentrating may also be effected due to an increase in anxiety. Other symptoms of arousal are irritability, anger, feeling jumpy, and being hyper-aware of surroundings. For example, the victim of a robbery may have trouble sleeping during a thunderstorm that sounds similar to the one that occurred the night of the robbery and feel the need to keep checking for intruders.
Symptoms may come on suddenly and you may find you are unable to identify anything in your life currently that explain these reactions. If you find yourself experiencing symptoms that are unjustified by current events, try asking yourself “Has anything significant happened to me this time of year?”
What You Can Do
- Lots and lots and lots of self-care. Your mind and body are experiencing distress and they both deserve your love and attention. Do things that relax you, show yourself compassion, and get nurturance. Some examples are: going for a walk, taking a bubble bath, deep breathing exercises, listening to music, and eating healthy.
- Reach out. Find someone whom you trust and who you feel comfortable sharing this experience with. Maybe it’s a good friend, someone who is aware of this event in your life, or a therapist. The important factor is getting the support you need and deserve.
- Find a therapist (if you don’t have one already). If you have one, talk to them about what you are experiencing. If you don’t have one, it may be a good idea to find someone who specializes in trauma, grief, or loss to help you process and work through your experiences. They can also help you find ways to cope with past events and how to manage triggers when they occur.
- Take it easy and accept. What you are experiencing is normal. Let yourself feel how you are feeling. Strong difficult emotions are uncomfortable, but it’s important to remember they (and you) are safe, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Resisting your experiences can intensify and prolong them. If you are not comfortable working through and experiencing these emotions alone, then don’t. Find someone who you trust to talk to or keep you company.
Remember, you are not alone. It is normal to experience anniversary reactions no matter how long ago the event was.
- Hamblen, J., Friedman, M., Schnurr, P. Anniversary Reactions: Research and Findings. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (http://www.ptsd.va.gov)
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (www.nctsn.org)