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Anniversary Reactions May Feel Like Anxiety and Depression

When losses change your life, recognizing your reactions help you get over them.

Loss invariably affects people on many levels. After the year of COVID-19 losses, many of us need ideas about how to process them. In my previous post, I wrote about experiencing anniversary reactions to the death of a loved one. Anniversary reactions also arise in response to divorce or the end of long-term intimate relationships, or other significant losses such as job loss or an unsettled end to a deep friendship. If you have had such a loss, you may find yourself feeling unexplained negative emotions that seem a lot like depression or anxiety but may be traced back to a time of year when that significant loss occurred. In this post, I continue to discuss anniversary reactions to the loss of a relationship.

What might this look like?

A client, Galen*, told me that she felt irritable, angry, and vaguely anxious, crying all day on a recent sunny morning when she should’ve been enjoying a relaxing day off. Together we traced her thoughts and activities to identify when the change of her mood began – on her first day off in a while, the spring air and sunshine seemed to put her in an unexpectedly anxious mood. If you are looking at such an unexpected mood shift, as Galen was, it is useful to ask yourself if the emotions are familiar to you in any way. In Galen’s case, the anxiety was familiar, and she connected it to how she felt about living alone, which was fairly new to her and had been exacerbated by the isolation and social distancing caused by COVID-19. That led to noticing with surprise that the anxiety about being alone began when her partner had walked out on her – on exactly such a sunny weekend morning – leaving her shocked and bereft.

João Jesus/Pexels
Losses can sometimes make us feel disconnected from ourselves and those around us.
Source: João Jesus/Pexels

Galen had worked on resolving her hurt and anger after the breakup, discussing it in therapy and leaning on friends for encouragement, but she was unprepared for an anniversary reaction. Her initial fear of living alone was overshadowed by the pain and anger she felt, but now the anxiety re-emerged. Her anniversary reaction led to expressing it as she discussed the fear, unclouded by the other feelings of a breakup. However, from the perspective of a year later, she could also see that she had dealt successfully with living alone and had maintained connections to friends who supported her, allowing her to let go of anxiety.

What Can Heal These Events?

When people lose the deep relationship of a life partner, they may also become disconnected from friendships the couple had. Feeling connected is one of our core needs for psychological well-being. (See Ryan and Deci’s work on self-determination.) When people experience abrupt disconnection, as in Galen’s situation of a partner unexpectedly leaving a relationship, it is not only a shock but it separates us from the very people who might offer solace. Being left alone can frighten people, and in those cases, anniversary reactions often include feelings of anxiety like panic or dread. An important tool to relieve anxiety is always to eliminate uncertainty and establish awareness of safety. Verbalizing emotions is one important tool to decrease anxiety by clarifying the confusion of unexpected emotions from an anniversary reaction. That paves the way to knowing what we need to establish safety or comfort.

To identify anniversary reactions, try following a journaling approach that brings out the connection.

First, as you notice your reactions, such as sensations of anxiety that feel excessive or are seemingly unrelated to a current situation, ask yourself these questions, in this order:

  • What am I sensing in my body? Where are these sensations?
  • Are these sensations familiar?
  • When in the past have I felt like this?
  • What do I see myself doing in the past scenario, and who is with me? (You may see yourself as if in a snapshot. It works well if you create a possible storyline that fits with the snapshot. Often a clear memory will emerge from that.)
  • Is there any similarity between what is going on in my life at this moment and the scene from the past that I recall?

Then, try writing about what the similarities might be. It is okay if you write about possible similarities even if you decide later that those are not all relevant, and you don’t need to wait to write until your mind feels perfectly clear. Most often, if you write in a stream-of-consciousness way, important connections will emerge. This method works exactly as well if you talk through each step above, as long as the person with whom you are speaking does not answer for you, but rather listens and keeps you focused on the question you are answering. I do this method quite often with my therapy clients.

Ketut Subiyanto /Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto /Pexels

What therapists know is that putting words to emotional states (verbalizing), through writing or talking, connects your thinking brain and your emotional brain, encouraging integration of the experience. (Integration implies understanding that relieves anxiety, mastery of emotions so they do not seem so overwhelming, and also knowledge that leads you to understand how to repair the hurt.)

Writing is one way to help connect yourself back with your identity.

If it suits you, express yourself through art, like drawing or music creation, to let out your emotions before you try to put words to them. Verbalizing may be hard when feelings are very strong, especially if you have not had a lot of practice doing it.

When you clarify what you are feeling and what it is related to, you may see that you wish to connect to a close friend for comfort, or set up a time to have fun as a way to remind yourself that you are not in the same place as when you first lost the relationship. If the emotions do not lighten or shift, this might be an indicator that a conversation with a therapist is in order.

Loss invariably affects people at many levels. If you feel anxiety from your own anniversary reactions, you’re not alone. After a year of COVID-19 losses, many of us need ideas about how to process them so that we can begin healing.

* Name changed for confidentiality.

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