Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/28/2022
Do you ever wake up on what should be a normal day feeling more anxious or stressed than usual?
You look at the calendar and remember it’s the anniversary of a certain traumatic event, like a divorce, car crash or the loss of a loved one.
This is what’s known as a trauma anniversary. It can cause unsettling feelings, thoughts or memories on the anniversary of a significant experience.
Even if the traumatic event happened years ago, the wounds can still seem fresh on its anniversary.
The good news is that getting through this day is possible, even though it can be difficult.
Below, we provide tips on how to get through a trauma anniversary.
Going through a traumatic event is not rare, as 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience at least one trauma in their lives.
The anniversary of a traumatic event, or traumaversary, can bring up specific thoughts and feelings from the actual event, even years later.
Around the anniversary of a traumatic event, trauma survivors might remember details of the event vividly. Some may even experience peak levels of anxiety and depression, similar to what they may have felt during the event itself.
You may have an anniversary grief reaction because of the way traumatic experiences are saved in your memory.
Our memories of trauma give you information about the danger associated with the event. This can help us learn when we should be afraid, tell you how to feel in dangerous situations, and provide information that may help us stay safe. But it can also lead to being unnecessarily fearful or having negative emotions in normal situations.
For example, a memory of a sexual assault might tell you that it's important to beware of strangers at night and to run away if one comes near. So when a survivor of a sexual assault remembers the incident — which is likely on the anniversary — that traumatic memory might tell survivors to feel fear and think that they are in danger.
Other examples of events that could trigger an anniversary grief reaction include:
Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, fires or earthquakes
Physical pain or injury
Witnessing a death
Trauma survivors may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or long-term effects of the trauma.
Around 10 to 20 percent of people who experience trauma develop PTSD symptoms afterward.
Women have a two to three times higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder than men.
You can learn more about common PTSD symptoms in women in our guide to PTSD.
Traumatic memories may produce strong feelings, as well as physical symptoms and bodily reactions.
Reactions to the anniversary of traumatic events are often like more intense versions of the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Some common reactions during a traumaversary can be:
Re-experiencing the trauma. One of the most common reactions on the anniversary of trauma is having the same feelings, thoughts and physical responses you went through when the event first happened. Something reminds you of the trauma and you feel that fear again.
Avoidance. Another PTSD symptom is trying to avoid anything related to the trauma. Sometimes the feelings that are triggered by the anniversary are so strong that you might try to avoid certain places or even thoughts or feelings related to the incident.
Negative changes in beliefs and feelings. When it gets close to the anniversary of a traumatic event, you might find old thoughts, shame or guilt coming. You may also start to feel sad, or find connecting with loved ones especially difficult.
Feeling hyperreactive (or hyperarousal). You might feel nervous and on edge or be constantly on the lookout for danger to prevent another traumatic event from happening. You could be easily startled, on edge or have angry outbursts. You may also have trouble focusing or sleeping if the trauma memory is particularly strong.
Other types of trauma anniversary reactions may include symptoms of anxiety, such as panic, worry or panic attacks. In fact, traumatic life events were also found to be the biggest single cause of anxiety and depression in a 2013 study.
You may also experience physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches and stomachaches.
No matter what symptoms you may develop after a traumatic event, coping with the trauma anniversary is possible.
When the anniversary of a traumatic event comes around, you can prepare with these strategies.
Planning is a great way to help you prepare for an upcoming trauma anniversary. While you may not know what to expect the first year after a traumatic event, you can eliminate extra stressors if you feel like you may be particularly vulnerable.
Reach out to friends and family who can support you, try not to schedule any big changes (like a move or job change) and schedule extra sessions with a mental health professional if you see one.
If the trauma you went through was a public event, keep in mind there may be more media coverage of the event. Try not to follow the news or watch television around the date of your trauma.
Understand that your feelings are part of the recovery process. Everyone reacts to trauma differently, but it’s perfectly normal to have these strong emotions.
Find healthy ways to cope with whatever emotions come up — whether through talking them out with supportive friends or family members, seeing a psychotherapist or by writing them down. You can also try contemplative activities such as taking a walk.
While it may be tempting to use alcohol on the anniversary of a trauma event, alcohol and drugs are unhealthy coping mechanisms.
It’s understandable why people choose to use alcohol as a way to reduce stress or anxiety after a traumatic or distressing memory. Alcohol acts as a sedative that can take your mind off your troubles and reduce fear.
However, once the relaxing effect wears off, alcohol can increase feelings of anxiety.
If you have unsettling feelings, try a calming activity like watching a movie you enjoy, chatting with a friend or going for a walk in nature.
Seeking help from a mental health professional can help you process whatever feelings come up on your traumaversary.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of psychotherapy used for traumatic stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy has consistently been found to be the most effective treatment for traumatic stress in both short-term and long-term treatment.
CBT helps people identify unhealthy and negative thought patterns that fuel harmful behaviors and find ways to change them.
If you’re unsure of where to start with therapy, our online mental health resources can get you started right from the comfort of your home.
Sometimes a mental health professional or your healthcare provider will prescribe medication to help you deal with traumatic stress symptoms.
One of the more common types of medications used is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
If the traumatic memory was the loss of a loved one, you may be going through an anniversary grief reaction. While anniversaries of lost loved ones are difficult times, taking time to remember them can be cathartic and a way to honor them.
You may visit the cemetery, donate to a non-profit they supported, sign up for an associated charity event, pass on a family name or heirloom or plant a memorial garden.
Dealing with the anniversary of a traumatic event is a difficult time.
But with a supportive network, calming activities and the right treatment options for you, getting through a trauma anniversary is possible.