It happens every year. A thick fog sets in all around you. There’s a heavy depression you can feel deep in your bones. You realize that despite all the work you’ve done to heal, you feel confused, lost, afraid and numb all over again. And it just… won’t… let… up. And it all seems eerily familiar.
It’s like, what happened is happening all over again.
When this happens to you on an annual basis, you are likely in the middle of a trauma anniversary. Therapists sometimes call this an “anniversary reaction”. Somehow, without even looking at a calendar, your body pinpointed this as the same season, month, or day of your trauma from the past. It can help to understand why this happens, and to create a plan to get through it.
Why This Happens – The Brain’s Trauma “Case File”
We believe this happens because of the way the brain processes the actual trauma. Most everyday moments get filtered first through our thoughts and feelings. With trauma, the brain skips past those normal pathways. It instead sends the information straight to the brain’s “alarm center”. The alarm center quickly responds to clues about the situation through sights, sounds, smells and our other senses. All this happens in fractions of a second without a single initial thought or feeling.
After that trauma, your brain kept something like a case file on it. It took all that happened, as well as all the clues around it (the sites, sounds, smells, etc), and labeled them “traumatic”. The brain does this for good reason, to help you be alert in the future. This is so the next time someone says those words, or your car makes that sound, or a doctor promises a procedure will be “just fine”, you intuitively know enough to be at the least, cautious.
The problem is, the brain often puts too many clues in that case file. Weather patterns, the sounds of seasonal insects, and annual work traditions get thrown into that mental file along with everything else. With all that information in there, you start to become not only triggered by similar situations, but by the time of year itself. And just like the first time, your logic and reasoning won’t impact your reaction in any way. That’s why it’s so hard to reason your way out if it.
Ways to Get Through It
Since that file your brain creates gets hired-wired into your system, it will likely take a while to remove all those everyday clues from that file. Below are things you can do to remove those associations or help this trauma anniversary go more smoothly. Not all these will work for you, but take note for yourself what does. At the end you’ll find a trauma anniversary plan you can fill out for the next time you need it.
Mark Your Calendar – If you know the date of your trauma(s), mark it on your calendar. Plan around that time in whatever way you can. Plan a work sick day or two if any is available. Ask for an extra meeting with your therapist if you have one. If you don’t know the date, it may be that after several years you recognize the month or week. With what you know, plan ahead as much as you can.
Be Patient with Yourself – If it’s been several years, having an anniversary reaction may seem like a setback. You might feel embarrassed for feeling the ways you do, or question what you’ve done wrong in your healing. Do what you can to fight against those thoughts, because they are not helpful. I’d even suggest that questioning yourself right now is only fueling the reaction itself through shame. Instead, remind yourself that this happens to many others, even years later, and that it will take a while for this to lose it’s power. It’s not you, this is just what happens.
Mark the Passage of Time – You may not know this, but the part of your brain that’s reacting right now has trouble with telling time. Find ways to mark this as a new year; the present not the past. You might consider a new piece of meaningful jewelry, getting a haircut, or writing a list of what how far you’ve come and placing it on your mirror or phone.
Create a Ritual – If this reaction is happening but you are in a safe environment, it might be that your body is signaling to you to create some kind of personal closure for that experience. Creating a ritual might give your body and mind the time and space to process what happened to you when you couldn’t before. It’s hard to do this, but if you can, pay attention to what comes up for you. Grief? Anger? Fear? What are some rituals that could help you release it? Some suggestions: Light a candle. Give yourself 15 minutes a day to feel all the feelings you have. Write a letter, rip it up and toss it in the ocean. Take a self-defense class each summer. Create a healing music playlist and play each night.
Seek Support – Isolation also fuels the reaction. Refuse to give into the shame that says no one wants to hear about this anymore. Find people who do care about you and what you’ve been through. Even if that support is not from your friends and family, there is plenty of support online from people who’ve been there, too.
Create an Emergency Plan – If you’ve been working with a therapist, you’ve likely created a plan for dealing with triggers. Your trauma anniversary, however, is a special circumstance that may need a different or stronger approach. Where you might use one or two grounding techniques for your panic attacks, this time may require five. Where you might contact one support person, you might need three. This exhausting time may require more rest from you than normal. Create a special coping plan just for this time (like the one at the end of this post).
Automate Tomorrow’s Tasks – You might find it’s harder to think clearly and to make important decisions, especially the day of. So if you can, set up the next day’s tasks so they will take less thinking from you. Make and pack your meals. Lay out your clothes. Set and label alarms on your phone (label them: “Take a Break”, “Stretch”, “Don’t forget to email Jane” etc).
Ignore It? – Note: I only list this one because I’m sure you’re considering it. But while skipping the day by keeping busy or not acknowledging it at all it can help to some degree, it may also have the opposite effect. It may intensify or prolong the reactions you’re having. Do it if it works, but be careful with this one.
Help Others – Reach out to friends, or volunteer for an organization. It can but doesn’t have to be an organization related to your trauma. It’s a way of keeping busy, but one that is meaningful and can let you channel your feelings and release them.
Use Grounding Techniques – If you’ve found grounding techniques that work for you, you may need to use as many of them as you can, as often as you need to. You might find you need to ground several times per hour during this time.
Create a New Association – Many survivors find it helpful to create a new over-the-top positive event to associate with that day. This might be hard to do depending on your resources. You could plan a vacation, go to an amusement park, run a marathon, or join another different-from-your-trauma experience that needs you to be fully there to enjoy it.
Limit Your Stress Intake – I’d advocate for this most of the year anyway, but consider limiting any avoidable stress. I’d start with limiting tv news and get written headlines instead. If your schedule is packed but doesn’t need to be, consider lightening it. Your body is full of stress right now. Take care not to overload it unnecessarily.
Care for Yourself as Best You Can – If you struggle with self care, then this will not be easy. But of all the times of the year you need to be taken care of the most, this is it. I talk about self-care in my office as creating a foundation. It doesn’t solve anything, but it gives you at least a floor to stand on. Without eating healthy or getting some kind of rest, then the stress of a trauma anniversary can send you spiraling further down.
When Everyday’s an Anniversary
You might find that your anniversary reactions happen not just one day or month of the year, but nearly every day. If that’s the case for you, then in addition to the options above, consider talking with a therapist or your support system about Complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is a particular set of reactions to repeated chronic traumatic experiences. For you, every day is a trauma anniversary, and that can have it’s own effect on you and may require a similar but daily approach.
Here’s What it Takes
Regardless of if your anniversary is one or many days of the year, getting through it will likely require a proactive plan, support, patience, and self-compassion. Easier said than done, of course. Each time you make it through this kind of experience, add it to the list of things you had the strength to get through.
It can help to plan for these moments. Download this PDF Trauma Annivesary Plan, and type or write it out for yourself.