There are so many dates of the year that are meant to be exciting: birthdays, Christmas, and anniversaries.
But not all anniversaries are joyous — and even if you aren't keeping tabs on the date when something upsetting happened, you might get anxious or sad once that time of the season rolls around. It's a phenomenon known as the anniversary effect, which Deborah Serani, PsyD, a licensed psychologist based in New York, says is a set of difficult feelings, thoughts, or memories that occur on the anniversary of an emotional or physical event.
"The mind has a way of unconsciously coding the time of a trauma," she says, adding that the anniversary effect is associated with grief and mourning. "So the date, month or season of the event activates the memory of the trauma."
You might, for instance, feel a pang of sadness when you realize it's the birthday of someone you knew who passed away, or realize it's the anniversary of a relationship that you broke off. Sometimes, though, the anniversary effect might not be tied to a particular date, especially if something upsetting unfolded over a matter of weeks or months.
"The autumn leaves of fall may trigger an anniversary reaction to the death of your mother because she passed in October," Dr. Serani says. "Holiday music and Christmas decorations remind you how much you miss your parents. Anniversary effect reactions can be experienced on the day of the event, or weeks before and after the event."
And because we all experience trauma differently, even something that you might not think is particularly painful in the objective sense (i.e., your life wasn't threatened, and no one passed away) can still be really affecting.
There's no right or wrong about experiencing trauma.
Deborah Serani, PhD
"Trauma has a range of impact, from mild to profound," Dr. Serani says. "Some people don't experience an anniversary effect with mild or moderate traumas, but there are some that do. There's no right or wrong about experiencing trauma."
To that end, even something that you didn't find super painful in the moment could hit you later down the road. Dr. Serani says that people can have delayed reactions to trauma, and might initially feel disconnected from what happened. Sometimes, you might not even register that anything potentially upsetting has happened.
"However, the next year, you do feel them," she says. "I have worked with [people] where anniversary effects have taken years to finally feel because the numbness of the trauma was long-standing."
Just like there's no one way to experience trauma, there's no one way to heal. But Dr. Serani says that there are ways you can cope with distress by exploring and expressing those feelings when they come up, whether you talk to a therapist or someone else you trust, or write out all your thoughts. And if the traumatic event was tied to something that happened on a mass scale (a mass shooting or earthquake, for example), it might also be a good idea to steer clear of the news and social media on the anniversary of that event.
"Make sure you take time to glance at a calendar each month and explore dates and memories attached to such dates," she says, adding that this could help prepare you for any feelings that might come up.
Most importantly, remember that it's okay to be upset over something, even if it happened years ago. And if you have trouble working through those feelings, it might be useful to talk to a mental healthcare professional.
"Loss affects each of us differently, so don't put a time limit on your grief," Dr. Serani says.
If you are experiencing depression or anxiety and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.