Some PTSD Sufferers Experience the Anniversary Effect

Elderly man crying while sitting on stairs
Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

Several family members and my friends have served during the War on Terror. I’ve seen them return with severe PTSD to mild PTSD. The severity seemed linked to how much combat they experienced. I never thought of regular citizens having PTSD too until the #metoo movement when sexual assault survivors spoke about their trauma. I didn’t think that I had trauma too, but I realized I had adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which most of us probably have.

After 2001, the media informed us of PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, panic attacks, and violent outbursts. Those symptoms didn’t feel real to me until after my son’s accidental strangulation on March 26, 2019. The moments of seeing his dead body, my husband performing CPR, and my revived son sometimes haunt me. But I didn’t hear anything about the “anniversary reaction” in all these years. Remembering 9/11 intuitively informed me of the anniversary reaction.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs explains what an anniversary reaction is:

An increase in distress around the anniversary of a traumatic event is commonly known as an “anniversary reaction” and can range from feeling mildly upset for a day or two to a more extreme reaction in which an individual experiences significant psychiatric or medical symptoms.

Personally, I struggled during month anniversaries after my son’s accident but struggled more during the first-year anniversary. I somewhat understand how hard it is for 9/11 survivors and veterans now.

The First Anniversary Reaction

Amid the 2020 pandemic lockdown, my family and I had trouble selling our home and buying a home. The typical places for children to go like parks, schools, and museums were closed. On my first trauma anniversary, we had a house inspection and home showings scheduled. My sons and I had nowhere to go except a relatives’ place for five hours. There, my older sons argued over game rules and my youngest frequently escaped. When one relative informed me that my boys needed to be quieter while he worked, I had a full-blown anniversary reaction!

I fled upstairs, screamed, and swore. I retreated to rest, but only anger and shame enveloped me. I had thoughts of suicide. The panic attacks ebbed and flowed for a week.

On the flip side, not everyone experiences anniversary reactions as I have observed from my husband and oldest two sons with PTSD. Their nightmares, anger outbursts, and overprotectiveness of my third son only appear related to safety hazards, not in any pattern.

Avoid Scheduling Events on Trauma Anniversaries

In 2020, I canceled the remaining home showings so I could decompress at home, where my suicidal ideation decreased. Talking with my counselor later, we discussed not overscheduling on future trauma anniversaries.

For the 2021 anniversary, my husband and second son were attending a funeral out of state. In this case, another life trial preceded an absence of events. While I felt somewhat anxious without my husband’s support, I suppressed my feelings and plowed through. I kept the day lowkey and survived. I felt bottled up inside, but I had made it through the day. However, I had a panic attack several days later. But it lasted hours versus a week of panic attacks in 2020.

Thus, I know keeping trauma anniversaries simpler really does reduce the severity of any reaction.

Self-care Aids Recovery during Anniversary Reactions

After coming home on the 2020 anniversary, I engaged in self-care by talking with my husband, journaling, and talking via telephone with a relative. Soon I recognized trauma from past complaints about my sons’ noise level and anniversary trauma triggered upon my relative’s request.

As many suggest, I applied medicinal humor by watching comedy in the evening.

In 2021, I used drawing as a method of self-care. During the last week of March, I drew forget-me-nots and wrote a couplet. I thought of my husband’s grandmother’s natural death and other acquaintances who died by suicide during the pandemic. And I thought of my son who died, yet lived.

Spare a thought

To forget me not

I spare a thought

To forget thee not

Photo by George Pach on Unsplash

Self-care is different for everyone. I like to draw, but drawing increases my sister-in-law’s anxiety. Spiritual practices also help me. Find what calms you. Some methods may include exercise, meditation, Netflix and chill, etc.

Let It Out

I found that I needed to write, journal, and talk to process the trauma on both anniversaries. I expressed myself through poetry. I also found that bottling up my feelings led to stronger reactions.

Approaching the second anniversary, my husband shared he didn’t want to mentally mark the date. I took that as he didn’t want to talk about it with me, so I kept my feelings to myself. Several days later, my anger burst at my husband because he acted like it was no big deal to him. We talked through it. We had our own processes of letting out the pain and anger. I happen to be more expressive in that regard (maybe due to bipolar and my personality).

So find a way that you can let out your feelings. That may be talk therapy, journaling, art, group therapy, or phoning a friend. This process can be pretty messy.

Understand Anniversary Reactions May Have Repercussions in Relationships

On the first anniversary, many negative memories about my relative resurfaced after he “shushed” my sons. Over several days, my relative and I communicated our concerns and feelings. However, my frustration increased when no apology came. Finally, I emailed him an apology for my overreaction, an explanation, and set my boundaries. In response, he emailed me to not contact him again. I was floored. According to another relative, I had triggered his divorce betrayal trauma.

My relative remained mostly silent for six weeks. Our relationship slowly healed, yet others who experience trauma sometimes aren’t as fortunate to mend broken relationships.

Some marriages dissolve after traumatic events. I know of one couple who divorced due to the veteran spouse’s severe PTSD symptoms. My marriage has been tested because of PTSD too. During some of my panic attacks, I feel the only option is divorce.

I’ve seen that therapy, open communication, and extensive patience may heal the damage done by PTSD reactions. This works for some, yet not for everyone.

Seek Help for Suicidal Thoughts and Attempts

Because of my PTSD and bipolar, I experience suicidality often. My husband rarely experiences suicidal thoughts, so not all PTSD sufferers become suicidal. For all of us with PTSD, we need to create a prevention plan. Part of the plan is listing support people and professionals.

Support people include therapists, group therapy members, supportive family and friends, and suicide hotlines. (For ideas on how to help a loved one, I wrote this post or visit this article for more information.) In my experience, a combination of help — someone validating my feelings, my husband physically stopping me in extreme circumstances, a spiritual reminder of my divine nature, or the reminder that others need me — will bring me back from the brink.

Find what works for you to reduce the severity of an anniversary reaction. You can find tips at Verywellmind to create your own suicide prevention plan.

Finally, know that there are angels there to help you. These angels come in many different shapes and sizes, but they are there.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call this hotline:

Lifeline:1–800–273–8255

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I love language and believe every word is a poem. I majored in English language from BYU. I am a mom to four rambunctious boys. I have bipolar disorder too.

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Eileen Davis

Eileen Davis

I love language and believe every word is a poem. I majored in English language from BYU. I am a mom to four rambunctious boys. I have bipolar disorder too.

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