Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Anniversary Effect

Christmas. Kwanzaa. Hanukkah.
Halloween. Carnivale. New Year's Day. Cinco de Mayo.
Bastille Day. Boxing Day. Labor Day. Independence Day.
The first day we met.
The last day of school.
There are so many dates that mark occasions throughout the year that bring us happiness. But there are days in the calendar year that make us feel unsettled. These dates go unnoticed. Not that we don't remember them, but unnoticed as to how that date presses on our psyche. This experience is known as "The Anniversary Effect".

What the Anniversary Effect?

"The Anniversary Effect" or an anniversary reaction may be defined as upsetting behavior, reactivation of symptoms, and/or distressing dreams that occur on an anniversary of a significant experience. Sometimes we know why we are feeling melancholy, irritability or anxiety. For example, 9/11 holds an anniversary effect for many Americans and others in the world. And now, hurricane Katrina will also hold anniversary reactions for survivors and those who witnessed its aftermath. These dates will continue to be recognizable sources for our psyche's disturbance. We have conscious awareness of these dates and events. We are aware of the trauma time-line and the current calendar time-line[1]. Anniversary dates that are known to us enable us to identify why we are upset or in mourning. We connect the dots from our current emotional state to the trauma date or the traumatic event. Other obvious dates make the anniversary reaction traceable: birthday of a loved one that is not living, the date of an accident, a loved one's death, the holiday time when something traumatic happened, just to name a few.

But, there are dates that have a time-specific relationship to us that are not recognized or readily made conscious to us in the calendar year [2]. There is no conscious awareness of the trauma or calendar time-line. These "Anniversary Effects" take us by surprise. We don't know why we are feeling so down, anxious, upset, lost, or confused. Our bodies take on the psychological impact of the anniversary date, and we can also feel physically ill or sick. For example, the date you signed your divorce decree, not the day your loved one died but the day of the burial, listening to certain song that elicits a swirl of emotions, the season of the year when your child goes off to college, the scent or smell of something that triggers a deep response in you, or a current event that recalls a trauma in the past[3].

Anniversary reaction types, whether single, repetitive, or generational, are ways by which a person re-experiences mourning in an attempt to gain mastery. It is important for the individual who moves through this to realize that it is a part of the normal grieving process. In the first year of healing, a feeling of pain or anxiety may occur at the 3 month, 6 month, and one-year anniversaries of the date. After the first year, people tend to experience "The Anniversary Effect" on the year-marker. For vulnerable individuals, a specific time of day, a certain day of the week, a season of the year, a scent or a glimpse of something related to the trauma can trigger an anniversary reaction [4].

What You Can Do

Despite the fact that "The Anniversary Effect" was first identified almost 100 years ago, it is often overlooked as a source for psyche disruption. There are things that you can do to help yourself with this experience.

An anniversary marks a time of heightened vulnerability. Being aware or predicting anniversary reactions is always helpful. I often advise people I work with to look at a calendar and explore dates and memories attached to such dates. This framework can help prepare one for the anniversary reactions, and how the present day time-line can be connected to losses in the past.

Anniversaries of public trauma,crises or disasters receive significant media coverage, and re-visit imagery of damage and destruction. Such exposure can intensify "The Anniversary Effect" --- so it would be important to limit media watching and reading in and around those dates.

Journaling or blogging can be a helpful outlet for "The Anniversary Effect". Such expression can provide an opportunity for emotional healing. By recognizing, allowing and attending to feelings, memories and thoughts, an individual can make significant steps forward through the natural process of grief [5].


[1] Mintz, I. (1971). The anniversary reaction: A response to the unconscious sense of time. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 19, 720-735.

[2] Campbell, R. (1981). Psychiatric dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press

[3] Dlin, B. (1985). Psychobiology and treatment of anniversary reactions. Psychosomatics, 26, 505-520.

[4] Pollock, G. H.(1971). Temporal anniversary manifestations: Hour, day, holiday. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 40, 123-131

[5] Myers, D. (1994). Disaster response and recovery: A handbook for mental health professionals. Rockville, MD: Center for Mental Health Services.


melissa said...

Hi Debbie,

Great topic...and, what an important one. There is so much truth on the effects that "anniversaries" hold for us...they can throw a routine and a life in disarray, disrupt relationships and cause heightened anxiety...and, most times we are not even aware of what "triggers" these episodes...thank you for bringing attention to an issue that we can all start to better explore, plan for, and hopefully begin to prevent some of the symptoms of the "anniversary effect".

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Hey Melissa,

These dates and events have such a way of throwing a curve ball, and it would be so helpful to know and prepare. So glad you found it meaningful.


kath said...

good post... and so true..

I n g e r said...

Interesting to think a date could impact you without your conscious awareness of it.

So sad and angry today, and feel so useless to help. I want to stop watching, but can't stop watching. Then I realized I had the radio and the TV turned on--one to CNN, one to NPR--each too loud, to drown out the other. The mind leaps madly from snippet to snippet, trying, trying.

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Dear Mckait,
I like the post too, especially because I think many people overlook how the "calendar" bears down on the psyche.

Dear Inger,
I also feel so dazed and confused regarding the ongoing disaster in the Gulf Coast of the US. I will have to add this event to my own calendar time-line.


Precisiongirl said...

Great post Deb.

I wanted to read about this as soon as I heard you were going to write about it.

For years I used to become really down and depressed from October to December, without really acknowdging the pattern. When I finally sat down and thought about it I realised it was because Oct-Dec '99 was when I lived in a youth hostel as my father had kicked me out. Every year after that as soon as autumn started I would just lose it for a few months.

Now I know the reason why (the anniversary effect), it seems easier to work through.

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Dear Precision Girl,
The Anniversary Effect is good to be aware of because you can prepare for the emotional fallout when the date, event or season arrives. It is good that you can connect the dots to your trauma and the time of year it occurred. Awareness is so key to help you move through tough times. I am really glad that you can find comfort in your new understanding.


Nancy said...

I have an odd memory for dates and numbers. Even if not conscious that I know them, somebody will ask about a number or a date and it will come flying right out of my mouth.

I remember birthdays from my friends when I was three. I remember their phone numbers and addresses as well.

I always email by brothers on the anniversaries of our parents deaths. Or they call me for dates or telephone numbers. My brother uses me as his own personal calendar!

I am prepared when the dates arrive. Doesn't really help lessen the loss, but it does make sense about my mood on these days.

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Dear Nancy,
You are *very* number oriented!! Seems that emotions, memories and recollections get fused with your ability to code them numerically. Wow.


snoopy said...

thanks for that entry.... i've been generally pissed at everyone lately for no good reason and i didn't know why.... but after reading your entry i realised it's because i'm only a couple of days away from the anniversary of my baby's death. thankyou. i feel a little more normal now.

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Dear Snoopy,
The loss of a child is such a terrible tragedy, so my heart goes out to you. Linking your emotional experience to the time of year will probably help you feel, as you say, more normal. Best wishes to you as you move through this tough time.


OhioRuthie said...

Great entry....I lost my mom on memorial day...turned forty three months after...and am alone now...firsts of all kinds are really hard...going to her fav store...even seeing her fav halloween candy in the store yesterday...I dread the holidays. Will try some of your advice on the blog...have a therapist but he can't really make the adjustment for me.

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Dear Ohioruthie,
So hard to lose you mom, at any age. There is a good book I read some time ago, "Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss" by Hope Edelman.

Wishing you peace,

Rachel said...

Hey Dr D,

Thanks for letting me know about the anniversary effect... I passed this blog post round Kings Cross United, and researched it some more, and it has helped other survivors.

Many thanks x

Mike Kirkland said...

I felt this for a long time, especially when I found out that I had prostate cancer but joined a social network called and found a lot of people who shared similar experiences and it helped a lot.

drytears said...

What a good post... and good timing as well... June 24th will be my one year of my suicide attempt and I am a bit anxious about it... hopefully I will be too busy with preparations for camp which I leave for the next day.

elizabeth said...

The one year anniversary of my 18 year old daughter's suicide attempt is July 14th. I did not expect to react the way I am, perhaps next year I will be better prepared.

Jennifer said...

In March 2007 my husband and I had a big fight and he moved out and subsequently filed for divorce. This year I didn't realize until after the fact the date (didn't anticipate). Will it ever stop? It seems that history is doomed to repeat itself. I got in a fight with my roommate on the same day and have felt depressed since.