The anniversary of a traumatic event can bring up feelings you experienced at the time, even years later. Learn more about these ‘anniversary reactions’ and ways that you can cope
The images of Grenfell Tower engulfed in flames will forever be etched in our nation’s memory. Half a decade on from the horrific fire, our thoughts and prayers are with those who lost loved ones, the survivors, and the wider Grenfell community.
This kind of anniversary – one resulting from a traumatic event, be it a national or worldwide disaster, or an individual loss – can reactivate many thoughts and feelings from the time, creating a kind of ‘anniversary effect’. You may be more likely to remember events clearly and feel emotions more intensely than usual.
Here, we’ll explore what the anniversary effect is in relation to trauma and grief, and how to cope around the time of a traumatic anniversary.
What is the ‘anniversary effect’?
The ‘anniversary effect’ is felt on or around a date that marks a significant event. It might be the date a loved one died or their birthday, or the day an assault or accident happened. As that date nears, memories can start to resurface, and it can feel like you’re experiencing the annual echo of a trauma.
Although being reminded of difficult feelings around an anniversary is a common and normal part of the grieving process, it can be distressing. Anniversary reactions can also signal that you’re not yet over the trauma of your experience and may need to process or work through your grief. As a result, some researchers feel that this anniversary reaction should be listed as a symptom of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
In this video, trauma specialist Greg James explains more about trauma, including how we process trauma, what is considered a traumatic event, the differences between trauma and PTSD and what support is available.
If you have a difficult date approaching, here are some techniques to help you deal with the anniversary effect.
Take time to think about the months ahead and note any dates that have painful memories attached to them. Remind yourself that the days or weeks leading up to these dates could be tough for you.
Particularly if you’ve experienced an anniversary reaction before and feel you might be vulnerable again, let supportive friends and family members know so they can be there for you.
Reduce your media consumption
As well as being mindful of your own anniversaries, it can be helpful to be aware of any public traumas, such as terrorist events or natural disasters that will receive mass media coverage.
It’s likely that, during these times, there will be an increase in imagery and stories of the event that you may find distressing, and which could trigger your own personal memories. It could be helpful to try to limit how much news you consume online or on the TV around these times.
Talk about it
Finding a way to express your memories and feelings at the time of an anniversary can be really helpful. You could talk to a friend or family member, make notes, keep a diary about it or find other creative ways of expressing your feelings – whatever feels comfortable for you.
And remember, it’s never too late to talk. If you weren’t able to find help when you suffered the original trauma or loss or had some but it didn’t feel helpful at the time, you may feel frustrated or even ashamed that you’re still dealing with your trauma years later. But it’s never the wrong time to seek help, and you deserve to feel supported.
Psychotherapist Kelly Stewart explains that, in relation to the Grenfell disaster, commemorating can be the act of stopping to remember. “Five years on, it feels like the world has moved on, except for those still living in the aftermath, picking up the pieces. I write this because I feel an urge to pause and stand still; an urge to remember, against our societal grain of rushing on.
“Grief can be thwarted by the busyness of those around us. The world moves on whilst our inner world continues to stand still. Processing all that has happened, all that has been, all that could have been… It’s not easy.”
It can be tempting to avoid thinking about an anniversary and the event at the centre of it, but directly addressing your loss or trauma so you can release your feelings about it in a controlled way can be helpful. If you lost a loved one, you could visit a place that was special to them. If it was a public trauma, you could make a donation or take part in an event by a related charity.
Look after yourself
Make sure you take good care of yourself during these times. Self-care, support and comfort will help you to move through your trauma.
Reliving the sadness is a very natural part of the healing process. But there is no one right way to heal. Try not to compare your reactions to those of others. Each person is different, and each individual will find their own way of coping with the memories.
Take your time
Loss affects us all differently, and there is no set amount of time in which you should be ‘over it’. If you feel overwhelmed or that you can’t get through this anniversary, this might be a good time to talk to a professional.
“Therapy can help us form a picture out of the jumbled mess of jigsaw pieces. A therapist will work with you to reprocess the traumatic situation into something your brain can understand,” says counsellor Kai Manchester.
“There are many different therapies out there and many different therapists. This is something that is a personal choice for you to make in terms of what you are looking for and who you connect with.”
If you’ve experienced the anniversary effect, think you might have PTSD or are struggling with grief, support is available. You can find verified psychotherapists and counsellors who can help at Counselling Directory.