There are so many anniversaries throughout each year that call for rejoicing! This can look like Christmas, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and more. But what about those anniversaries where we feel the opposite of this?
The “Anniversary Effect” is a reaction to a significant date that may involve unsettling feelings, thoughts, or memories. The cause of this reaction could be due to any significant event or loss, including a cancer diagnosis, date of first surgery, or loss of a loved one. For those dealing with unresolved grief, you might be able to trace feelings of sadness, anxiety, and frustration back to a date and understand why those feelings are there. On the other hand, sometimes anniversary effects don’t revolve around specific dates but around seasons or physical reminders. For example, the falling leaves of autumn might remind you of when you were frequently going to the hospital for chemo.
Here are some common ways this reaction might manifest:
Frustration, Anger, and Guilt
Survivors may have anger at being reminded of the loved ones they lost, the time taken away from their lives, or the slow process of rebuilding and healing. Individuals may also experience survivor’s guilt, causing more frustration than expected after the fact.
Fear and Anxiety
Anticipation about an upcoming date can manifest as fear and anxiety. Some symptoms include restlessness, startled responses, negativity, trouble concentrating, irritability, or worrying.
Survivors tend to avoid reminders, people, or places that surround an event or memory to protect themselves from re-experiencing it.
Dreams, Memories, and Flashbacks
Individuals may experience recurring dreams or nightmares. Oftentimes these thoughts can’t be turned off and are the brain’s way of attempting to process the event.
The best way to get through anniversary reactions is to be aware of it, prepare for it, and know that it is a normal and expected response to distressing events. Here are some ways to practice self-care and cope with the anniversary effect that you may be dealing with:
Prepare for it
Be aware of dates and seasons coming up that may have memories associated with them, and let your support people know so they can be there for you. Eliminate extra stressors and remind yourself that the days or season leading up may be tough.
It can be good to remember how far you have come and know that the reaction is temporary. Reflecting on the emotions you are experiencing can be helpful to cope by finding creative ways to express your feelings like writing in a journal.
Some people find it helpful to honor and acknowledge the date. This can be visiting a cemetery, a celebration of survival, or making a donation to a non-profit related to your cause.
Share your feelings
Talk with family and friends that support you. Talking can allow you to release the frustrations and guilt associated with your memories. This can also be talking with someone who has been through a similar experience like with a support group or mentor.
Have Extra Support
When you know an anniversary or date is coming up that may cause unsettling feelings, it can be helpful to let the people who support you know. This can look like finding support from loved ones, friends, or professional help. Tell them ahead of time so that they can check in on you, listen to you, or even help you commemorate the day through meaningful activities.
In my personal experience as a co-survivor, I have also had my own “anniversary reactions” to a very specific date: my mom’s birthday, which also happened to be the day of her first surgery after her diagnosis with triple-negative breast cancer. Even though I was only eight years old at the time, I still had unsettled feelings and thoughts that came up on her birthday every year after this. My version of coping with the reaction I would have on her birthday was to commemorate the day. This looked like me getting my school to wear pink on her birthday, or buying my mom a charm to put on a bracelet for her birthday each year to signify another year she had made it since her first surgery. No matter what your anniversary reaction looks like and how you cope with it, know that it is a common and expected response to trauma and grief and that it looks different for everyone. When you take the time to recognize your feelings and prepare, you can and will get through it.
This blog was written by Forge Intern Samantha Nichols who is a co-survivor.
Resources for this blog post include: