There are so many dates that mark occasions throughout the year that bring us happiness. The first time we met. The last day of school. The moment you got engaged. The day you enlisted. Birthdays. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Wedding anniversaries. Valentine’s Day.
But there are days in the calendar year that are hard to take. The day a loved one died. The birthday of a someone special who’s no longer alive. The date of a serious accident you endured. These dates press on your mind, body and soul in distressing ways. When they arrive on the calendar, you feel sad, lost and in pain.
The clinical term for this experience is called “The Anniversary Effect.” Sometimes called an “Anniversary Reaction,” this psychological experience is defined as a unique set of unsettling feelings, thoughts, memories and physical strain that occur on the specific date of a significant trauma. For some, the Anniversary Effect causes a re-experiencing of the loss; for others it heightens the stressful aftermath of the event. Certainly for all, the anniversary of the day is marked with enormous emotional and physical pain.
Sometimes you can trace the reason why you’re feeling sad, irritable or anxious. One look at the calendar and you connect the dots from your current emotional state to the traumatic event. For example, you readily recognize the date of a natural disaster, or when your father died, the date of your cancer diagnosis or a miscarriage, just to name a few.
But there are dates that aren’t recognized or readily made conscious to us in the calendar year. They are subtly stored in our memory in less time-specific ways. The Anniversary Effect may come in sensorial or seasonal ways. For example, Autumn reminds you of when your child left for college, or a hot humid day recalls you time you foreclosed on your house. An icy storm summons the moment of a life-changing car wreck, or fireworks on the Fourth of July stirs memories of fighting in Iraq.
Anniversary Effects are like a post-traumatic stress response, but in calendar form.
Depression and The Anniversary Effect
When you live with depression, you may live with two calendars — one that keeps track of time, while the other stores emotional experiences. And when it comes to Anniversary Effects, you need to be mindful of the dates of trauma in your life.
Another thing to be conscious of is in the first year of a traumatic experience, painful feelings, despair and anxiety may occur at the third month, sixth month, and ninth month intervals of the anniversary date. After the first year, most people then tend to experience “The Anniversary Effect” on the year-marker date.
When depression is a chronic issue in your life, managing your illness becomes a necessity. One of the ways to keep a healthy structure is to note the negative events that uniquely touch your life. By doing so, you can become more conscious of the power of these events. You can double down on self-care to prepare yourself for an Anniversary Reaction. Being mindful of these annual moments also can minimize the helplessness you can feel as the date approaches – or the element of surprise as the date suddenly appears on your radar.
Every year, I note the happy dates on my calendar, as well as the painful ones. I’ve learned in my own therapy while recovering from depression how seeing these dates several weeks ahead prepares me for an Anniversary Effect. Being aware helps me keep my depressive symptoms from worsening. I make sure several weeks before these difficult dates arrive to eat and sleep well, not overdo too much and to delegate as much as possible so I can navigate the painful loss as it approaches.
In my work as a clinician working with others who struggle with mood disorders, I also encourage my patients to do the same. In addition to learning the wonderful moments in a person’s life, the session work outlines days in the year that are tough. Together, my patients and I work to use the structure of the calendar to help manage the symptoms of depression that ebb and flow at such trying times.
What You Can Do?
Here are some more tips to help you deal with Anniversary Effects.
1. Look. Make sure you take time to glance at a calendar each month and explore dates and memories attached to such dates. Whether it’s an old-school paper calendar or a digital one, this kind of habit can keep you aware of traumatic dates – and prepare you for the possibility of an Anniversary Effect. For instance, I circle difficult dates in red on the calendar that’s clipped to my refrigerator in my home. Seeing the color in relation to the present date helps me ready myself.
2. Remember. The anniversary date is not the only day you might feel out of sorts. Remind yourself that days or weeks leading up to an anniversary date – and even ones after, may be tough ones for you. For example, a patient of mine whose mother died around Thanksgiving has an equally difficult time when Mother’s Day rolls around in May. As the pumpkins from Halloween fade and the Christmas decorations begin dotting the landscape, she becomes mindful of her loss. But she also readies herself again when the commercials for Mother’s Day flowers or gifts stream across the television.
3. Let others in. Sharing the date with others can enable you to feel less isolated when the anniversary of a difficult day approaches. Resist the urge to shut down or withdraw as it can worsen depression. If the Anniversary Effect touches the life of your child, make sure you reach out to teachers or other important adults to alert them to the dates.
4. Limit media. Anniversaries of public traumas like 9/11, disasters, somber holidays like Memorial Day or Veterans Day receive significant media coverage. Often, media outlets revisit distressing imagery. So, a good idea is to limit watching of TV, surfing the internet or reading newspapers around those dates.
5. Get it out. Expressing your thoughts and feelings when an Anniversary Effect happens can help you move through it. You can do this by talking with a family member, a cherished friend, journaling, scrapbooking, blogging and other creative ways to express your inner experiences.
6. Take good care. Nourish yourself with things that bring you comfort, ease and peace during these times. Self-care, like eating healthy, keeping a steady sleep schedule, pampering yourself, and delegating as much as possible will help ground you as you move through your anniversary date.
7. Ask for help. If you find you’re struggling with your trauma, remember you’re not alone. Loss affects each of us differently, so don’t put a time limit on your grief. But, if you feel exceedingly overwhelmed or can’t readily cope with your Anniversary Reaction, consider calling a mental healthcare professional who specializes in depression and trauma.
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