- The anniversary of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic may bring a range of reactions, including sadness, disbelief, and anxiety.
- Experiencing increased stress and distress around the time of the anniversary of a traumatic event is common and is known as an "anniversary reaction."
- Some things that can help us cope include being compassionate to our bodies and minds, and giving ourselves space to work through our memories.
n March 11, 2020, the world watched with great sadness as the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a global pandemic. For many communities and societies around the world, the month of March brings with it the reminder of how the COVID-19 pandemic turned our world upside down. This anniversary may bring a range of reactions for many including sadness, grief, disbelief, anger, anxiety, fatigue, overwhelm, depression, along with several other responses. After a year of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, many may be wondering, why am I experiencing this now?
As a therapist who specializes in working with survivors of trauma, I have worked with several clients who have experienced distress surrounding the anniversary of a traumatic incident or loss. Even after decades of meaningful work and healing, I have seen how the anniversaries of traumatic events may bring unexpected distress and still “haunt” us.
What contributes to this? To help us navigate the world around us, our brain has a powerful way of making associations. These associations help us to understand what is happening in our world and how to respond to it. Although these associations are adaptive and may be the brain's way of protecting us from harm or danger, the associations our brain makes surrounding painful events can remind us of times in our life that we might not want to remember. Whether it is the anniversary of surviving a traumatic incident, the loss of a loved one, or the onset of a pandemic, our brain may remind us of the pain we experienced during that time.
Our Brains Make Powerful Associations to Memories—Good and Bad
To help us understand the power of our brains and body, let’s consider associations that are positively valenced and that might feel more tangible. Have you ever had a specific place in your life, where whenever you go, you are filled with positive memories and joy? A place where, when you are there, you feel teleported to a different time? Our brains have powerful ways of making psychological, emotional, and physiological associations with stimuli around us; particularly if those stimuli involved a time of intense emotion or arousal (van der Kolk, 2015). Our brain can transport us back to another time in our life when our memories are activated by our senses, a trigger in our environment, an internal trigger, and yes, even a date or season of the year.
Although our brains may transport us to happy memories, they may also leave us feeling as if we are reliving the distress of traumatic events when the anniversary of it comes around. In psychological research, some have called this phenomenon and the symptoms that may follow it an “anniversary reaction” (Daly et al., 2008; Hamblen et al., 2020). As discussed by the National Center for PTSD, anniversary reactions involve an increased stress response and increase in distress around the time of the anniversary of a traumatic event (Hamblen et al., 2020). Anniversary reactions may involve: a reactivation of feelings that occurred during the incident, physiological responses, mood alterations, increased stress and distress, traumatic stress symptoms, anxiety, panic, leave us feeling aroused and on edge, along with several other individual responses (Daly et al., 2008; Hamblen et al., 2020; Morgan et al., 1999).
Tips for Navigating a New Wave of Grief
It is important to recognize that dates of painful and traumatic events can serve as strong triggers for anniversary reactions. As we navigate the anniversary of the onset of the last year of collective trauma, some things that may support us in this wave of grief might include:
- Remember that anniversary reactions don’t last forever. It can be helpful to lean into our coping strategies, do things that bring us joy, comfort, rest, and help us feel safe in the world around us.
- It is important to be compassionate with our bodies and minds as they try to process and cope with the painful reminder of what the onset of COVID-19 meant for us and others around us. There is no shame in experiencing an anniversary reaction as your brain tries to sort through and process what that anniversary meant for you and your life.
- Reach out for support. Share with your support system what you are feeling and know that you are not alone in the process.
- Minimize or limit our watching of the news, engaging in social media, or other activities that might increase the number of triggers we have to navigate. We should not avoid our emotions, but we don’t have to exacerbate them and leave our brains and bodies feeling more overwhelmed than they already are.
- When we experience anniversary reactions or our brain resurfaces painful memories, this is often an indicator that our brain has further processing to do surrounding this event. This information is invaluable as it informs us that our brain may need some support in this area. Whether it's through seeking support through a therapist, journaling, taking time to commemorate the losses and grieve, or by some other means, our brains and body deserve the space to work with and through these traumatic memories.
Daly, Erin Scott, Gulliver, Suzy Bird, Zimering, Rose T, Knight, Jeffrey, Kamholz, Barbara W, & Morissette, Sandra B. (2008). Disaster mental health workers responding to ground zero: One year later. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21(2), 227–239. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.20311
Hamblen, J., Friedman, M. J., & Schnurr, P. P. (2020). Anniversary reactions: Research findings. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/essentials/anniversary_react…
Morgan, Charles A, Hill, Susan, Fox, Patrick, Kingham, Peter, & Southwick, Steven M. (1999). Anniversary Reactions in Gulf War Veterans: A Follow-Up Inquiry 6 Years After the War. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 156(7), 1075–1079. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.156.7.1075
Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.