Trauma anniversaries and approaches for managing them

| February 9, 2022
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Note: this post was updated in December 2023 to reflect new resources available to students and trainees.

Content preview: trauma anniversaries, trauma reactions

Maybe it’s the date that feels seared in your mind. Or maybe it’s tied to an event, like the last night of Spring Break or your first time back at a certain place.

Maybe it’s the first week out, or the first year, or the 10th. Maybe you’re not sure why, but you find yourself sad or scared, making yourself extra busy or pushing away people close to you.

Or maybe you shut down completely.

Whether conscious of it or not, our bodies and brains can react to trauma anniversaries, especially when the trauma has not yet had the chance to be fully processed and integrated into our lives. These reactions can look and feel the same as the immediate (or delayed) reaction to the trauma itself – with intrusive images, sounds, sensations or other memory fragments cropping up, dissociative processes that leading to a sense of disconnection or feeling unreal, or any other of the numerous ways trauma can impact us.

Trauma anniversaries can come in all shapes and sizes, from mass events like 9/11 that are memorialized and recognized publicly for years to closely held experiences where it can feel like, in the words of the public art poem displayed by the artist collective FORCE, “I don’t forget what happened, but no one else remembers.

Regardless of how much a traumatic experience is or is not publicly known or acknowledged, trauma anniversaries can be an isolating experience of feeling like everyone else has moved on, or a time when an inner critic lays on the self-shaming question of “Why am I not over this yet? What’s wrong with me?”

These anniversaries can also present a lot of associational cues (commonly referred to as triggers), that consciously or subconsciously activate the neural networks where the trauma memories are stored, leading to increased reactivity.

First and foremost: please know that it is normal to have reactivity to anniversaries.

It does not mean that you are weak, crazy, doomed to always feel this way, or any of the other fear or shame-based beliefs that may be arising.

If possible, offer yourself compassion and patience. If that is difficult to connect to, set an intention of cultivating self-compassion and/or imagine a caring presence (whether a loved one, a pet, a spiritual figure, a favorite character, or a peaceful place) in whose company you might feel cared for.

For other possible approaches to managing before and during a trauma anniversary, please consider the following strategies.

Reflecting on what you might need during the anniversary and brainstorming ways to meet those needs.

Do you want friends to check in with you that day about how you are feeling? Please let them know. Do you want to spend time with people but not be asked how you are feeling? Please also let them know.

The more communicative that you can be with yourself and/or with others about where you are and what will help, the more help can be provided. If you are worried that making these asks of others will be viewed as burdensome or demanding, please know that friends often deeply appreciate this kind of open communication and/or direction, as it helps relieve the anxiety of wanting to help but not knowing how.

If you determine that what you really want is to take a hike or curl up with a movie or be with certain people, but the anniversary falls on a day when those activities are simply not feasible, it is okay to make your plans for another day when there is more time. However, please keep the commitment to yourself to keep those plans and honor the needs that have been acknowledged, even if the actual anniversary passes without much difficulty or if the anniversary is difficult but by the time you reach the date of your plans, the difficulty feels diminished.

Please consider that you might have lower points/spoons on or around this day, and that this can be hard to recognize in the moment of this decreased energy. If possible, try to lower pressure or demands that you might put on yourself, and if you make plans for the anniversary, consider what will decrease the number of points needed to engage your plans. Are there ways to simplify, reduce likelihood of conflict, or lower the number of decisions required of you?

If it’s in your window of tolerance, giving yourself dedicated time for reflection and mourning.

All trauma involves loss, but we don’t always let ourselves grieve, and then the emotions can get stuck and build up. Creating space for contemplation and/or mourning can be a way we help the feelings of grief unstick and move through.

Mourning rituals such as lighting a candle, reciting a prayer or poem, observing a moment of silence, or going to a sacred place, may be helpful in dedicating some time for this, as well as providing a container for it so that you also feel able to move out of it (ie, allowing time for mourning doesn’t mean you have to be in it all day).

Titration and pendulation, concepts from Somatic Experiencing (a body-based trauma therapy), are very helpful for learning how to approach getting in touch with trauma related feelings and sensations in a slow and safe-enough manner, thus reducing the likelihood of overwhelm and retraumatization.

Separating past from present.

Whether the anniversary in question is one week or one year since the trauma, note the passage of time and anything that is different now (literally anything, the smallest details count). This is not at all to suggest that “you should be over it by now,” but instead to help the brain/body come to learn that it’s not still happening, or that it’s not still happening in the same way.

This practice needs modification for people experiencing ongoing trauma, as it’s very important not to minimize your experiences or tell yourself something that is not true. However, noting differences and changes in time can still have some beneficial impact here, too.

Trying to identify and recognize trauma associated cues/triggers.

Awareness of triggers brings you more choice – some you may want/need to avoid as much as possible, some you may want/need to limit while finding a way to coexist with, and some you may want/need to reshape your relationship to so that you can embrace them. (In this respect, you can think of them as similar to allergens.) Knowing what they are and when you encounter them can help you proactively prepare and most effectively respond to them.

If there are any trusted people in your life that you can share your triggers with, this disclosure can be very helpful. It does not make it their responsibility to make sure you never encounter your triggers or to manage them for you, but it can make a big difference for recognizing them in the moment and having some spaces for processing them.

Acknowledging the anniversary even if you don’t want to be focused on it.

It is generally helpful to be able to name the truth of what is happening even if you don’t want to focus on it. So while acknowledging that it is an anniversary, please give yourself full permission not to do anything related to it, including any of the above options, if that is what is best for you at this time.

Seeking professional emotional support if you need it.

If you are experiencing high levels of stress for any reason, or you’re just in need of more or different support than usual, consider reaching out to clinical professionals for a consultation. Some key Hopkins resources include:

Whatever goes on this day, please be gentle with yourself. There can be a lot of internal and external pressure to be “over it” or to get into any number of judgments about how you should and should not be feeling. The approaches offered here are just that, offerings. There is no one way to go through a trauma anniversary. Please be conscious of pressuring yourself to respond any one particular way.