“There’s no right or wrong about experiencing trauma.”

Dr. Deborah Serani

Have you been really drained lately? Do you feel like it takes a lot more energy to get going, even if your daily routine hasn’t changed?

It could be the anniversary effect.

An anniversary candle shaped like a human sitting down.

For most people in Canada, mid-March marked the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s one year of remote learning, one year of social distancing and one year of self-isolation. If you’re feeling less-than-your-best these days, you’re not alone—researchers from the American Psychological Association (APA) say the anniversary of a trauma is often strenuous.

“Anniversary dates of traumatic events can reactivate thoughts and feelings from the actual event,” writes the APA, “and survivors may experience peaks of anxiety and depression.”

Trauma and memory

Maybe you relate to recent feelings of exhaustion and sadness but, because you’re not constantly thinking about the pandemic, you don’t think the anniversary effect is to blame.

“It’s probably nothing. I’m just worried about assignments—right?”

A cartoon person at work.

Not necessarily.

Your brain subconsciously hangs on to the time when a trauma happens. So, even if it’s not on your mind, you could still be grieving. And, it’s possible to experience symptoms of the anniversary effect for weeks before and after the actual date of a traumatic event—the climate and time of year can trigger it.

In a 2018 interview with digital media hub Refinery29, psychologist Dr. Deborah Serani said, “the autumn leaves of fall may trigger an anniversary reaction to the death of your mother because she passed in October. Holiday music and Christmas decorations remind you how much you miss your parents.”

You could absolutely be worried about assignments. But that may not be the only thing your brain is dealing with right now.

A stressed-out brain.

Signs and symptoms

You might be experiencing the anniversary effect if you’ve recently noticed any of the major symptoms of grief:

  • Intense sadness;
  • Painful thoughts, feelings and memories;
  • Emotional numbness;
  • Unusual irritability;
  • Heightened anxiety;
  • Insomnia;
  • Emotional exhaustion; and/or
  • Difficulty completing everyday tasks.

However, the anniversary effect could be impacting you even without these symptoms. That’s because of incomplete grief, which is what happens when life moves so fast you don’t have time to move through your feelings in a natural and healthy way. Author and social worker Robert Taibbi writes,

“…all too often this normal process gets stalled or sidetracked or pushed underground.”

Riley from Disney-Pixar's "Inside Out" says, "Can't unsee that. Best to just suppress it."

Taibbi notes it’s important to be on the lookout for these subtle signs of the anniversary effect:

  • Obsession over what was lost;
  • Feeling persistently unsafe, even if nothing is immediately wrong;
  • Addictive or compulsive behaviours, such as workaholism; and/or
  • Codependence or social isolation.

Anniversary effect versus anxiety

Symptoms of the anniversary effect are similar to the symptoms of generalized anxiety. So, how can you tell which one you’re going through?

“Ugh, I’ve been going through a lot of those symptoms—but they’re nothing new. Maybe I am just worried about assignments.”

Truthfully, it can be hard to tell grief and anxiety apart.

A robot chooses between two T-shirts.

But it doesn’t really matter.

Grief, which is caused by the anniversary effect, often goes hand in hand with anxiety. This is because, for one, surviving a deadly global pandemic forces you to face existential truths about mortality and life’s uncertainties—and that’s worrying. Plus, taboos surrounding loss and emotional distress mean, collectively, we’re not great at handling complex emotional processes like the anniversary effect—that can make you feel isolated, and isolation makes anxiety worse.

The good news is grief and anxiety are both highly treatable. And, you can use similar strategies to combat both of them. As a starting point, extend extra empathy to everyone around you—including yourself—during this time.

“Loss affects each of us differently, so don’t put a time limit on your grief,” said Dr. Serani.

Two fuzzy monsters hug.

Coping strategies

The APA says distraction, acknowledgement and connection are key to overcoming the anniversary effect. In her interview with Refinery29, Dr. Serani said mentally preparing for painful anniversaries, and taking a break from the 24-hour news cycle when they happen, can also help. In her words,

“Make sure you take time to glance at a calendar each month and explore dates and memories attached to such dates.”

An anniversary calendar.

Connecting to a trusted support network is also key to getting through difficult times—and your school wants to be a part of yours. Humber’s Student Wellness and Accessibility Centre (SWAC) provides free, confidential counselling to all currently enrolled students at Humber and UofGH.

The SWAC is currently offering all its services remotely—so you can take advantage of them from the comfort of home. You can book your counselling appointment at any time through the SWAC website.

Or, get in touch with the Good2Talk helpline at 1-866-925-5454, access free mental health resources courtesy of the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health (CICMH) or visit Therapy Assist Online for personal support around the clock.

However this anniversary is affecting you, IGNITE is here to help you through it.

A child blows out anniversary candles.

The anniversary effect can take a toll on your relationships. Contact IGNITE’s Dispute Resolution Clinic to overcome your interpersonal issues.

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