Coping with Painful Anniversaries
Anniversaries are generally considered to be celebrations, marking events, people, places and times that we have loved and enjoyed. They bring us into contact with memories we wish to retain and relive such as birthdays, graduations and weddings to name but a few. Anniversaries have a place the world over, in culture, religion, history and society. But what happens when anniversaries become difficult?
In my work as a psychotherapist I have come to believe that the reason some anniversaries are difficult is two-fold. Firstly these anniversaries act as a type of ‘re-expose’ to an emotionally traumatic experience and secondly, these experiences very often go ‘unresolved,’ or without ‘closure’ - therapy-speak for unrecognized and without resolution and ending.
As we near a reminder of the experience...we begin to feel and think all the things we felt the first time around.
Events such as sudden death, unwanted separation, loss of job, miscarriage and acts of violence create a range of feelings and emotions for example anger, confusion, sadness and scare, as well as sets of behaviours such as avoidance, irritable outbursts, withdrawal as well as physical symptoms of sleeplessness, bad dreams, loss appetite, etc. that we fail to fully understand or accept, leaving us feeling at worst, out of control.
What these experiences share is, in my belief, a connection to complicated loss and grief. So, as we near a reminder of the experience, which we may or may not actively seek out by marking the calendar, visiting the place, contacting the people we begin to feel and think all the things we felt the first time around. In effect we become 're-aroused.’
This is normal and unavoidable, especially within a certain time scale; the first year of any such anniversary is always the most difficult. Unfortunately what complicates matters for us humans is that we are hard-wired to attack, run from, or avoid painful experiences as part of our natural fight, flight or freeze (numbing) mechanism in the brain. This results in adverse reactions to emotionally difficult anniversaries.
Unanswered questions about our relationship and unresolved emotions dominated my thoughts.
My own mother died, on my birthday, after a relatively short illness. I was pregnant with my second child. Nothing prepared me for the way, which I was to learn would become the ‘normal’ way, I would feel leading up to the anniversary of her death, my birthday and in many ways the birth of my child.
For a number of years I refused to celebrate the day, avoiding my birthday and the anniversary of her death. I would drag myself into that month with feelings of dread, anxiety, anger, sadness, fear and despair. Unanswered questions about our relationship and unresolved emotions dominated my thoughts. It was during this time every year that I recognized I would become ill with increasing severity, prompting me to eventually address the situation.
Over time I have learnt from my own experience, my clients and what the research says is effective in overcoming these difficult yet empowering anniversaries. I like to call them ‘restorative measures’:
- Be prepared and acknowledge the impending anniversary, don’t get caught off guard, what you see coming is far less scary than what you don’t.
- Allow your thoughts and feelings to come and go, they are normal for you.
- Record your responses in a journal, diary, painting, poetry, this helps you track your highs and lows.
- Be mindful of triggers to an event that heighten your arousal, TV, media, social networks and decrease input a month or so either side of the anniversary.
- Take time out to get to know yourself in this way, the more you know about you, the more able you are to look after your needs.
- Think about something you can do on the day to mark an ending, a ritual, a tribute. This helps you to move forward.
- Look after yourself, eat well, sleep well, avoid in excess all the things you may love but that will hinder your psychical well being.
- Take a walk in the outdoors, connect to nature, it's very grounding.
- Talk to people who are willing to listen, receive professional support if you need it.
We cannot take the anniversary away but we can learn to accept its inevitability and hopefully its restorative measures…