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20 Years After 9/11: Coping with Traumatic Anniversaries

Trauma anniversaries both heighten anxiety and foster emotional healing.

Key points

  • The "anniversary effect" or "anniversary reaction" is a grouping of disturbing thoughts, feelings and behaviors on or around a significant date.
  • Being reminded of difficult thoughts, feelings and behaviors around an anniversary is a normal part of the grieving process.
  • Ways to cope during anniversary reactions include prioritizing self-care and finding support through religious leaders or therapy visits.

September 11, 2001.

It's a date forever etched in our minds.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks. As is common with anniversaries, it's normal to observe an increase in the images and stories surrounding the event. In this case, frequent reminders via social media, newspapers, television, and radio are magnified, leading to an increase in anxiety and fear.

"September 11, 2001, and now the tolling of bells along with the reading of names of those who paid the ultimate price has become part of September as much as Labor Day," explains Julia Breur, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private clinical psychotherapy practice in Boca Raton, Florida. "What is lost with the passage of time, now 20 years, is the immediacy of the grief. We simply do not have a roadmap for this experience."

Breur points to other events or times of the year to illustrate the attention surrounding this day, noting that it is a significant departure from the ways in which other days are honored. "There is no other anniversary where TV and radio adjust their programming for film clips and sound bites, no other day where we pause as the names of those who died are read aloud. These rituals are actually coping mechanisms," she says. "We formalize our collective grief into a manageable once-a-year reflection."

The reaction to the surge in images and discussions surrounding anniversaries can be incredibly challenging, intensifying emotions more than usual. There's even a name associated with it: anniversary reaction.

"'Anniversary reaction' and 'anniversary effect' is a grouping of disturbing thoughts, feelings and behaviors on or around a date that marks a significant event," Breur says. It's not uncommon for the anniversary reaction to involve long periods of anger, depression, and flashbacks in the time leading up to, during the day of, and in the weeks following the event.

Anniversary Reaction Facts

Breur outlines a few key points about these reactions:

  • Just looking at a calendar can connect an emotional state such as sadness or being irritable to a traumatic event. One can actually experience annual reprisals of the traumatic event.
  • Anniversary reaction is being discussed by psychologists as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Being reminded of difficult thoughts, feelings and behaviors around an anniversary is a normal part of one's grieving process.

Grief and Your Brain

Our brains store painful and traumatic events and memories in an accessible way, Breur notes. This way, we're protecting ourselves from the likelihood of repeating certain patterns. Another part of the brain, the amygdala, helps control emotions and memory, while the hippocampus is involved in learning and memory. The prefrontal cortex helps regulate emotions.

While the brain is managing these various emotions, she emphasizes that grief is a personal and individual experience. "Each person experiences grief differently," she says, noting that each coping mechanism has a significant impact on the grieving experience.

September 11 Coping Strategies

Breur suggests some helpful ways to cope during the anniversary effect:

  • If you are a religious or spiritual individual, find support through your leaders at a church or temple. These leaders usually have extensive training and experience with trauma and loss.
  • Find an online grief support group and remember you can participate by just listening.
  • Contact a psychotherapist or counselor for support. They will help you normalize the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with trauma and grief.
  • Prioritize self-care by exercising, going for a walk, calling, or texting a loved one or friend.
  • Engage in a favorite hobby: read, journal, take a yoga class.

Finally, it's important to remember that although trauma is life-altering, it can also change people for the better. Breur encourages people to hold tight to this thought, allowing it to get them through tough times. "People realize they have a much greater inner strength than they ever thought, that they become closer to family and friends, and above all, that their life has new meaning.

The key, she states, rests in the ability to embrace life and move forward even in the face of its complexities. "People decide that they are going to redirect their lives towards their dreams and goals," Breur explains. "In other words, post-traumatic growth occurs and out of ashes a phoenix rises."