Fans of Stranger Things looking forward to the start of Season 2 are just about to learn a lot about the “Anniversary Effect”, but this is a very real psychological phenomena, and not at all fictional.
The “Anniversary Effect”, is a collection of disturbing feelings, thoughts or memories that occur on or around a date that marks a significant event. You could be feeling sad, irritable, anxious, emotionally shutdown, or unable to sleep, and a quick glance at the calendar will help you to connect this emotional state to a traumatic event. It might be the birthday of a loved-one you have lost, the due date of a miscarried baby, or the day an assault or accident happened. As that date nears, bad memories start to resurface, and you will realise that you are experiencing the annual echo of a trauma.
Some psychology researchers think that the anniversary reaction should be listed as a symptom of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), because even though being reminded of difficult feelings around an anniversary is a very common and normal part of the grieving process it can be really distressing. Anniversary reactions are also a signal that you are not yet over the trauma of your experience, and need to process or work through your grief.
As with many psychological phenomena the anniversary effect happens for a reason. Research shows that our brains store painful, sad or traumatic memories in an easily accessible way so that we can be reminded of, and warned off, the dangers to protect us from something similar happening again. For example, a driver involved in a car crash will have memories that provide information about what the driver should be afraid of, how she or he should see those situations, and how to feel and what to think in those circumstances. The anniversary of the crash will trigger these memories causing you to, in a way, have to live through some of those difficult and painful experiences and emotions again.
So if you have a difficult date approaching, here are some techniques to try to help you deal with the anniversary effect
Plan ahead Take time to glance at the months ahead on your calendar, and be aware of any dates coming up that have memories attached to them. Remind yourself that days or weeks leading up to these anniversary dates could be tough for you.
Prepare If you have experienced an anniversary reaction before and feel you might be vulnerable again, do your best to make sure your supportive friends and family members know and are free to be there for you.
Cut down on media Be aware not just of your own anniversaries but of any public traumas, such as terrorist events or natural disasters that will receive massive media coverage, possibly including distressing imagery, which could trigger your own personal memories. Limit your watching of TV, reading of newspapers and visiting Internet news sites around these times.
Talk about it The single most important thing is finding a way to express your memories and feelings when you experience the anniversary effect. You can either: talk with a friend or family member; make notes or keep a diary about it; or find other creative ways of expressing your feelings and inner experiences, whatever feels most comfortable.
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.
Only connect If you feel that you’re struggling, remember that you do not have to be alone with your memories.
Commemorate It is tempting to avoid thinking directly about this anniversary and the event at the centre of it, but it can be very helpful to directly address your loss or trauma so you can release your feelings about it in a controlled, public way. You can do this by visiting the cemetery, or making a donation or taking part in an event by a related charity.
Remember it is temporary Anniversary reactions can be very strong but will pass within a week or two and you will come out the other side of it feeling lighter.
And it is never too late If you were not 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 might well feel frustrated or even ashamed that you are still having to deal with your trauma years later. Our counsellors report that some of their clients come ten, 20 or even more years after their trauma, and it is never the wrong time to seek support.
Give yourself time Loss affects each of us differently, and there is no set amount of time in which you “should be over it”. If you feel overwhelmed or that you cannot get through this anniversary, it might be a good time to talk to a mental healthcare professional. With a skilled professional using some techniques specifically designed for PTSD, and a lot of courage and a little work from you, your most recent anniversary reaction could be your last.
If you have experienced the anniversary effect, think you might have PTSD or are struggling with grief or complicated bereavement we have experienced psychotherapists and counsellors who will be able to help. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call to make an appointment 020 8673 4545.