Why A Trauma Anniversary Brings Up So Many Emotions

“Having some emotion on an anniversary doesn't mean you haven't processed the trauma.”

by JR Thorpe
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 03: People visit Times Square as the city continues the re-opening eff...
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A whole year has passed since COVID hit the U.S. and lockdowns and case counts became a part of everyday vocabulary. It’s been a traumatic 12 months for many people, with health worries, layoffs, isolation, and anxiety and depression changing lives left and right. As the one-year point COVID passes, experts tell Bustle that, like many traumatic anniversaries, it might bring up a lot of unexpected emotions — even if you believe you’ve made your peace with the pandemic.

“COVID is, without a doubt, a shared trauma we've had as a society,Jessica Tappana MSW LCSW, a therapist and director of Aspire Counseling, tells Bustle. “Processing a traumatic event can take away a lot of pain and emotion associated with memories, but it can't erase what happened. So it's natural that anniversaries will bring about some sadness.”

The anniversary of an important traumatic date, like the start of the pandemic, 9/11, or a big loss in your life, can create a tidal wave of emotions. “Hard anniversaries can bring up a lot of grief and loss for us,” therapist Heidi McBain LMFT tells Bustle. In part, she says, it’s because the date is a reminder of where you were on this date in the past. It can also remind you how far you’ve come — or how far you feel you have to go before you feel like yourself again. You could also find it hard to stop thinking about the day itself. “The date of a trauma often becomes fixed in the minds of those who have experienced it,” therapist Phillip Mitchell MA MFT, a grief consultant at treatment facility Sierra Tucson, tells Bustle. This is known as the “anniversary reaction” in psychology, and it’s common among people who’ve experienced serious traumatic events.

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“COVID anniversary triggers will be different for everyone,” Tappana says. Some people will experience traumatic grief as they recall lost loved ones, many of whom couldn’t be grieved in typical ways. Others might remember losing their jobs, or panicking about the welfare of others. Even if things are better now, those memories will still have weight.

Studies are beginning to show the broader impact of COVID on mental health. Crisis Text Line reported in February that its counselors had exchanged over 48 million messages with people in crisis since March 2020. A study published in Psychological Trauma in August 2020 noted that there will probably be a spike in post-traumatic stress disorder globally due to COVID, particularly for frontline medical workers. Research published in Frontiers in Psychology in October 2020 found that many people have been seriously affected by separation from their loved ones, loss of freedom and certainty, and fear of the disease.

Even if you’ve done a lot of work on your feelings around a traumatic anniversary, Tappana says, you might still feel really bad on the day itself. “Having some emotion on an anniversary doesn't mean you haven't processed the trauma,” she says. “It means you went through something life altering and scary, and your brain and body remember that pain.”

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If you’re experiencing some difficult emotions around the anniversary of something traumatic, McBain suggests giving them space, rather than shoving them away. “Create time and space to feel all the feelings that may be coming up for you,” she says. “Be kind and gentle with yourself before, during and after this hard date.” She suggests looking into self-care that helps you deal with strong feelings, like journaling, meditation, or exercise. Mitchell says it’s important to try not to judge your emotions, even if they feel negative. “Emotions are there on purpose and are inherently safe to feel and express,” he says.

Tappana says it can be important to acknowledge the anniversary in a way that honors your feelings, including lighting candles, eating a meal with significant memories attached, or talking to other people about what the past year has held. “Emotional release is healing,” Mitchell says. “[The trauma] heals a bit more each time they're allowed to naturally express in a safe and healthy way.”

Professional support can help, too. “If you find yourself unable to function for the days leading up to and after an anniversary, it could be a sign there's additional processing to be done and you may want to speak to a professional,” Tappana says. Mitchell says there are a lot of therapies that can help, from cognitive behavioral therapy to eye movement desensitization. So you can work with your therapist to find things that help — whenever a hard date comes around.


Heidi McBain LMFT

Phillip Mitchell MA MFT

Jessica Tappana MSW LCSW

Studies cited:

Kanzler, K. E., & Ogbeide, S. (2020). Addressing trauma and stress in the COVID-19 pandemic: Challenges and the promise of integrated primary care. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S177-S179.

Saladino, V., Algeri, D., & Auriemma, V. (2020). The Psychological and Social Impact of Covid-19: New Perspectives of Well-Being. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 577684.