Anniversary Reactions: Dealing With Loss

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By Alyce Duckworth; LCSW and therapist at Turning Points, Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network
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About 14 years ago, in the early summer, I lost my father and grandfather in quick succession. Being in grad school and on the verge of marriage, it was already a tumultuous time for me. Although many years have passed between now and then, I continue to feel an increase in sadness, a decrease in energy, and quite unlike myself around the time of these losses. This year, the first with my daughter, I’ve experienced an intensification of these feelings as I’ve wished that she could have known the two very important men in my life.

Knowledge of trauma and loss tells me that I am not alone in the above-related experiences. In fact, there’s a name for the resurgence of depressed feelings that coincide with the anniversary of traumatic events, whether they involve the loss of a loved one or other distressing occurrences.

Anniversary reactions are thought to result from the manner in which the human brain stores memories that are linked with overwhelmingly strong emotions. These sometimes vivid memories are believed by many neuroscientists to be “date-stamped,” in a sense, by our amygdala, the stress regulating and organizing center of the human brain. The amygdala is responsible for self-preservation, and, when functioning optimally, it uses stored information to warn of impending danger. However, the brain doesn’t necessarily distinguish between the type of distress that is caused by a single-occurrence stressor, like a significant loss or a particular traumatic event, and that which is cyclical, such as a deadly tornado that strikes during tornado season. Anniversary reactions are our bodies’ messages to “take care.” And, like most such body-messages, it is important that we acknowledge them.

 

The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder specifies three common symptom categories of Anniversary Reactions:

  • Re-experiencing, in which flashbacks, nightmares, or vivid memories resurface or intensify surrounding the traumatic loss or event.
  • Avoidance, where a person feels the need to avoid any reminders of the original traumatic event, and
  • Arousal, whereby, during an anniversary reaction, a person feels heightened states of nervousness or non-specific feelings of dread or being “on edge.”

Anniversary reactions can occur without the conscious realization by the sufferer of the significance of the date, and they typically lessen in severity over time. If you or someone you know is debilitated by an anniversary reaction, it can signal the existence of such things as unresolved grief, overwhelming guilt, or an ongoing mental health problem. Professional assistance should be obtained to assist in dealing with such issues.

As always, when a person is experiencing serious feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or thoughts of suicide, mental health support should be sought immediately. Visit admhn.org to find such services in the Arapahoe and Douglas county community.

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