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from Solutions Counseling & EAP
by Keri Forbess-McCorquodale, MS, LPC, LMFT, CEAP
The Anniversary Effect
We recently had a very important anniversary in SWLA. As the one year anniversary of Hurricanes Laura and Delta approached, many people began to experience disturbing feelings, thoughts or memories. Sadness, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and irritability were also commonly felt. This was all due to something called “The Anniversary Effect.”
On the anniversary of traumatic events, whether they be weather events, deaths, or other major losses, you may have noticed you just don’t feel right. Sometimes, it is the other way around: you feel “off” with the symptoms listed above, and as you ask yourself what is going on with you, you remember the important date. The Anniversary Effect happens even when the upcoming anniversary wasn’t on your radar.
Our brains are so amazing. They store painful and traumatic memories in an easily accessible way. When the anniversary of a traumatic event is about to occur, our brains let those memories and feelings come to the surface. This is an attempt to prepare us so we can avoid the same trauma happening again.
I know I’m late with this information on the hurricane anniversary front (I think I was a little traumatized myself). But I also know we all have anniversaries of trauma in our lives. As you navigate those anniversaries and The Anniversary Effect, here are some things to consider:
Cut down on media. Particularly if the trauma is related to a news-worthy story. The news and social media will be flooded with stories and images from the original event. I found this to be true with the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I watched long enough to feel I had paid homage, then I needed to turn it off. Social media is another outlet that can trigger trauma. Seeing your posts from the years before can bring it all flooding back. I feel like I walk a tightrope on this one – I get on social media briefly because I like seeing the memories, then I get off so I don’t dwell.
Talk about it. Talking helps, period. Holding it inside does not help, period. Get together with friends to talk about what you all have been through and how you all have managed this past year.
Notice that last part – don’t get stuck in the trauma part of your story. Focus on the recovery part, and the fact that you are still here. If your trauma has to do with a death, talk to people who also knew your special person or who were a support for you during that time. Share memories, and hopefully be able to share some laughter. You will find that as the anniversaries add up, the laughter will come more easily. Remember, counseling is also a great way to “talk it out.” If you feel stuck in the trauma and are having a hard time moving forward with your life, it is probably time to get into therapy.
Commemorate. While it is tempting to avoid thinking about the traumatic event that has happened to you, it can actually be quite helpful to purposefully spend some time on the anniversary directly addressing what happened. Visit the cemetery, make a donation to a related cause, plant a tree, or cook your loved one’s favorite meal. These are all great ways to honor what has happened in a healthy way. I always ask people what they are going to do to commemorate the anniversary. Many times they say they haven’t thought about it, so we stop right then and think about it. If you don’t plan to do something, you will find yourself at loose ends on a very important day, which could lead to setbacks.
Remember, it is temporary. The Anniversary Effect tends to happen for many years, depending upon the severity of the trauma. However, it is usually fairly short: One to two weeks prior to the anniversary and one to two weeks after the anniversary. Typically, the first anniversary is the worst, and subsequent anniversaries tend to be less traumatic.
I wish we didn’t have to deal with traumas and the Anniversary Effect. But, we do. It’s the price of living and loving. I really do believe Alfred Lord Tennyson has it right: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”