The festive period can often be an overwhelming time of year for everybody – the big shop, the big to-do-list and the big question on everybody’s mind: what will Christmas look like for us all in the midst of a global pandemic?
If you’ve found yourself struggling to cope with your emotions with no real catalyst as to why, familiarising yourself with ‘The Anniversary Effect’ and a quick glance at the calendar may help.
Sometimes called Anniversary Reaction, the Anniversary Effect is a unique set of unsettling feelings, thoughts or memories that occur on the anniversary of a significant experience. It could be the birthday of someone who’s no longer alive, a traumatic event or a vague memory of something that disrupted your mental health in some way, no matter how insignificant it may seem in comparison to other peoples’ experiences.
As that date nears, bad memories may start to resurface as you realise you’re experiencing the annual echo of a trauma. And because we all experience trauma differently, even something that you might not think is particularly painful in the objective sense (i.e. your life wasn’t threatened, or nobody passed away) can still be really affecting.
There’s no right or wrong when experiencing trauma. And to that end, even something you didn’t find incredibly painful at the time could resurface further down the line. Sometimes, you might not even register that something potentially upsetting occurred, but feel the brunt emotionally the following year.
It may not always be easy to pinpoint an exact date or timeframe, especially if something upsetting unfolded over a matter of months. It could be that a certain season reminds you of a typically low time in your life, or a specific holiday is filled with less desirable memories that you are yet to fully process.
If you find yourself being reminded of difficult feelings during this time of year and can’t put your finger on why, it’s important to remember that -above all else – these feelings are completely normal.
Research shows that our brains store painful, sad or traumatic memories to remind – and warn – us of the associated dangers to protect us from experiencing something similar in the future.
It’s a sign that your brain is working the way it should be, and that’s a good thing! But it is also your brain giving you a little nudge to say you may have some feelings or memories to work through.
Just like there’s no one way to experience trauma, there’s no one way to heal. But there are steps you can take to make the period a little easier:
- Be patient with yourself
Remembering that it’s okay to be upset over something, even if it happened a long time ago, plays a huge part in making sense of your emotions. If it’s been several years, having an anniversary reaction may feel like a setback. Do what you can to fight against these thoughts. Remind yourself that this happens to many people, even years later, and that it will take a while for this to lose its strength. It’s not you, it’s just what happens. Trauma – in all its forms – affects each of us differently, so don’t put a time limit on whichever emotions come to surface.
- Plan ahead and mark your calendar
If you’ve experienced an anniversary reaction before and feel you may be vulnerable again, make sure your loved ones know and are free to be there for you if you feel able to reach out. This may seem obvious, but taking time to glance at the months ahead on your calendar can seriously help. Your brain, the part that’s reacting to a significant event, has trouble with telling time – so you may not understand why you’re feeling this way until weeks after the event itself. Mark your calendar for any memories that may have caused you distress, and remind yourself to set away time for self-care during any dates that could be tough for you.
- Talk about it, if you can
Only connect with others if you feel you’re able to, but remember you do not have to be alone with your memories, however you choose to process them. These feelings can be strong but remind yourself that they are temporary and will pass. The single most important thing is to find a way to express your memories and feelings in a way that’s comfortable to you. Whether that’s talking to a friend, a professional or journaling, do whatever feels easiest for you.
- Create a ritual
It may be tempting to avoid thinking directly about this anniversary or period of time altogether, but it can be helpful to directly address your loss or trauma so you can release your feelings surrounding it in a controlled way. If you’re experiencing an anniversary reaction but are in a safe environment, it may be that your body is signalling to you to create some kind of personal closure for this experience. Creating a ritual may give your body and mind the time and space to process what happened to you when you couldn’t before.
- Give yourself time
If you feel you are suffering directly with the effects of trauma and have not sought help, remember it’s never too late. Psychologists report patients seeking help decades after the event of their trauma – there is no right or wrong time to seek support. It’s also important to remember that certain events in our lives affect each and every one of us differently, there is no set amount of time in which you “should be over it”.
If you still can’t put your finger on why you’re feeling sad, irritable or anxious during a particular time and feel overwhelmed by these emotions, it could be a good time to speak with a mental healthcare professional. There are lots of therapies designed specifically for PTSD-like symptoms and implementing them into your routine could mean your most recent anniversary reaction is your very last.