About a year ago, for the first time in our living history, we experienced mass distress on a global level as the world faced the reality of COVID-19 and the uncertainty, terror, and loss it brought upon our lives. The pandemic is a type of trauma, commonly referred to as collective trauma, that typically occurs due to natural disasters, wars, mass shootings, and other horrifying events involving a significant number of people. However, in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, the entire world experienced a trauma that shook us to our core.
Trauma, by definition, is an overwhelming experience that threatens life, safety, or a sense of trust in the world around you. Trauma is subjective, meaning it is a personal experience that can’t be generalised to everyone. Some of us experienced trauma symptoms throughout the last year, while others of us were not distressed by COVID-19 in the same way.
Childhood trauma expert Dr Bruce Perry says about the impact of trauma: ‘Trauma is a lot like love. It means something different to everyone.’
When the dire consequences of the virus came into focus over the first few weeks of March 2020, we scrambled to overhaul our daily routines, work, teach and care for loved ones by avoiding proximity to as many people as possible. Separating ourselves from family and friends was an utterly foreign mode of living for many. These stressors piled on top of each other and our brains and bodies shifted into survival mode to manage the tasks at hand.
As the months wore on, we became adjusted to pandemic life, and our anxiety remained at a heightened level but slightly lower than the intensity we felt in the early days of spring. Slowly, throughout 2020, most of us developed a new baseline of anxiety, significantly raised from where it rested before COVID-19 began.
When faced with a threat, we modified the only thing we could control, our behaviour, and in general it worked. However, with the anniversary of the pandemic upon us some people may be feeling intensely anxious and are not quite sure why. With the good news of vaccine availability and the number of cases dropping here in the US, we expect to feel better emotionally. Still, we find ourselves feeling worse, and we might question ‘what is wrong with me?’
So what’s going on, and what can you do about it? If one year ago the pandemic caused you to fear for your life, the safety of your loved ones, your income, or disrupted your trust in the world around you, the anniversary of quarantine could be triggering a trauma response in your brain. This is known as an ‘anniversary reaction’, and is common amongst people impacted by traumatic events.
Common anniversary reactions
- Hypervigilance – Subconsciously/consciously scanning for danger/threats
- Avoidance of normal activities
- Difficulty paying attention/learning
- Shortness of breath
- Increased heart rate or pounding heart
- A feeling of impending doom
- Thoughts that you are going to ‘go crazy’ or die
- Physical pain, nausea, headaches/migraines
- Irritability – Low frustration tolerance
- Non-compliance/defiance in children
- Sadness, hopelessness, lack of motivation
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sleep, nightmares, or waking up frequently
- Intrusive thoughts
- Difficulty functioning in relationships and work
Anniversary responses can be shared with other events such as a significant loss, a natural disaster, witnessing violence, surgery or illness, an accident, or any situation that overwhelmed your brain temporarily. If you are noticing any of the above symptoms in your loved ones or yourself, I want you to know you are not alone. People all around the world are feeling more anxious than usual as reminders of the one year anniversary of the pandemic pop up into every day life on TV and social media.
The good news is, when we know an anniversary response is coming up, we can shut down scary thoughts like ‘I’m going crazy’ or ‘there’s something wrong with me’ in favour of more adaptive thoughts like ‘of course I’m anxious right now, it’s the anniversary of the pandemic.’ This shift in perspective can be beneficial to reducing the despair and anxiety caused by catastrophic negative thoughts.
For example, every year around February/March, we should expect to feel emotions of panic and sadness that lie dormant the rest of the year. Symptoms of anxiety or depression could show up in the few weeks leading up to the pandemic’s anniversary, or it could linger on into the weeks after. Our brain doesn’t forget how we longed for our family members, cut off social engagements with friends, canceled important milestones, watched loved ones die, and handled the stress of keeping our children safe while trying to balance careers.
Instead, our brains remember threats to our safety through sensory input like smells, sounds, weather, photos on social media, and the rituals that typically occur in late winter and early spring each year. This sensory input will remind our brain of the trauma, which will temporarily set off a stress response to protect itself.
The purpose of the stress response is to tell us to run away from or fight off what seems like a repeat of the traumatic situation (even though the initial event is over.) This is why you might be feeling restless and extra anxious right now. There is a purpose for our anxiety. Your anxiety is telling you to move or attack to protect yourself. That’s why exercise can be exceptionally helpful for anxiety.
I like to describe anxiety as an overprotective friend. Sometimes we need to say thank you, but no thank you. Anxiety means to help you, but is often misguided or over-exaggerated based off of a past experience that is no longer a threat.
If you find yourself struggling with anxiety there are many natural things you can do to manage our emotional well-being, and knowing your triggers is a massive piece of the puzzle. I believe the awareness of the connection between the trauma and your emotions alone can downgrade your panic the next time you face the anniversary of a traumatic experience.
Things you can try if you are feeling extra anxious
- Take a cold shower or bath and imagine washing all of the anxiety off of you and watching it go down the drain.
- Learn a relaxation technique called bilateral stimulation and repeat affirmations while using it.
- Imagine blowing all of your worries into a bag or container, then open the window and let them go.
- Do an activity that engages the executive functioning of your brain – puzzles, crosswords, journaling, card games like solitaire, math problems, and other brain teasers.
- Repeat comforting phrases that validate your emotions. ‘Of course I’m anxious given all I’m going through. Anxiety is a friend who is trying to help me.’
To learn more about how to cope with anniversary reactions, traumatic experiences, and other mental health challenges, please follow me on my Facebook page, Beth Tyson Trauma Care, and join my private Facebook group, Emotiminds.
Emotiminds is a private group for mental health professionals, parents, grandparents, and teachers who want to increase emotional well-being for children and families. We would love you to come and learn with us.
To schedule a webinar or interview on this topic, please contact me on my website.
Be gentle to yourself and others. If you are having trouble functioning in everyday life, please seek a mental health professional’s support and be evaluated for proper treatment. There is help available, and asking for help is the bravest step you can take for yourself and your family.
Beth Tyson is a psychotherapist, trauma-responsive coach, author, speaker and advocate for families coping with trauma and loss.
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