More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
The Anniversary Effect
by Deborah Serani, Psy.D.
Mon, Jun 4 2007

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 is 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.
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