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The Anniversary Effect and Trauma

Trigger warning. This blogpost talks about birth trauma and Postnatal PTSD

Mental Health Monday 

Today I want to talk about the Anniversary Effect. If you are or know someone with untreated or partially healed trauma, this psychological phenomena is likely well-known to you in some shape or form.

I actually wanted to talk about this sooner, because I have been suffering the effect myself, but I’ve been trying to stay in my window of tolerance to make sure that the unpleasant symptoms I am feeling do not get worse. That unfortunately means taking more time for myself, and trying to be mindful. I’m trying to stay present, take care of my body and mind, and practice positive coping and a healthy dose of self-care. I’m trying not to let the anxiety, fear, anger and shame that I am feeling ruin this special day. But damn, it’s been difficult these last few weeks. And it’s hard not to hate myself for how I react, physically and emotionally, to this time of year, because it’s simultaneously the anniversary of the happiest day of my life and the anniversary of one of my traumas.

Birth trauma and Postnatal PTSD

This day 7 years ago, my unique, creative, strong, and intelligent daughter was born. She is the light of my life, and since her birth she has been my main reason for continuing to work so hard on processing and treating my severe anxiety issues, CPTSD and PTSD.

I (or I think it’s honestly appropriate to say, we) had a traumatic birth experience. I don’t want to get too deep into the details, because I can feel my body reacting to this in a very familiar trauma-response way, but I will say that the contributing factors to the birth trauma were rather the typical ones listed for any traumatic birth experience. From the very beginning, the birth and after-care experience did not go to plan. There were sudden medical issues, the labor was difficult, long and intensive, and my husband and I did not receive the appropriate support needed after she was born. Unfortunately, because I also have CPTSD and anxiety, as can be expected, the above risk factors and my pre-existing mental health complaints created a perfect storm for developing PTSD.

A few months post-partum, I luckily realized for myself that I was suffering from tell-tale PTSD symptoms, and I immediately contacted my psychologist who had previously helped me reach the recovery state with my anxiety disorder and CPTSD. We worked together for almost a year, and I had made a lot of progress with the birth trauma. My flashbacks, physical sensations, and avoidance symptoms diminished, but we were still working on my anxiety issues and intrusive thoughts, when another completely unrelated traumatic event occurred. Unfortunately the severity of this other event took precedence and required more immediate attention. Sadly, this meant though, that I’ve never really gone back to visit the birth trauma since then. And only since the pandemic, have I well and truly realized that I still experience (although to a lesser extent than in the first few years) the Anniversary Effect around my daughter’s birthday.

What is the Anniversary Effect?

What is the Anniversary Effect? Also sometimes called an Anniversary Reaction, Anniversary Effect is a collection of unpleasant thoughts, feelings or memories that occurs on or around a date that is significant to one’s trauma. Not all survivors of a traumatic event experience the anniversary effect, and you also don’t necessarily need to have experienced a traumatic event to develop the Anniversary Effect. Many people often have similar reactions, for example, as a normal part of the regular grieving process surrounding the loss of a loved one.

But for those of us who do suffer an Anniversary Reaction, for days or sometimes weeks before the date, even if you are not completely aware of why, you may start to notice the following common symptoms:

You may feel:

– Sadness and grief

– Anxious and afraid

– Frustration, Anger, Shame and Guilt

– Emotionally numb or emotionally shutdown

You may:

– Have more pain or unpleasant sensations in your body, due to heightened hypervigilance and muscle armoring, or your body’s memory to the traumatic event

– Have more flashbacks

– Have trouble sleeping

– Be constantly reminded of the anniversary

– Replay memories, thoughts and feelings about the event that you can’t seem to turn off

– Have recurring dreams or nightmares

– Purposefully avoid reminders of the event, and try to treat the anniversary like any other day

Although unpleasant, an Anniversary Reaction is related to our brain’s way of storing traumatic, sad and painful memories. Our brain’s store these unpleasant memories for quick and easy access, so as to readily alert us to danger and protect us from allowing something similar from happening again. It is a survival response passed on from our primitive ancestors who needed this sort of reaction in order to stay alive. These days most of us don’t live in a constant state of survival, but a traumatic event can easily be considered such a moment. And a single traumatic event is all that our brain’s need to trigger the alarm mode.
As most of us well know, although a traumatic event is in the past, someone who suffers the effects of PTSD will often relive the event by way of flashbacks and other unpleasant symptoms before they have reached an appropriate state of recovery. The Anniversary Effect can therefore be considered a signal that you are not yet fully over the trauma of your experience. These effects are a cue that you still need to process or work through your trauma and the spores of grief that it leaves behind in your mind, body and soul. And as someone who suffers PTSD, I can tell you from my own personal experience that this takes time. Recovery can often be a long winding road, where patience, support, and understanding are absolutely imperative to the process.

Take care of yourself

So if you are experiencing the effects of trauma or are suffering from the Anniversary Effect right now, please do what I’m doing for myself at this moment. Because I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this today, allowing these uncomfortable sensations in my own body, if I didn’t think it was worth it. For me. For you. For anybody looking for validation and a feeling of being less alone in their plight.

  1. Please try to be kind to yourself.
  2. Please take care of yourself.
  3. Do something nice for yourself that gives you comfort and pleasure, and
  4. Don’t be afraid to seek connection and support from trusted loved ones, groups or (mental) health professionals if you need it.
  5. Do give yourself time. There is no set amount of time in which you should process your trauma or loss.
  6. Don’t forget that you are strong. You have been through so much. You could have given up, but you didn’t.
  7. You may feel broken, but you aren’t. Your body is reacting appropriately to your trauma and grief.

You may feel like you’re simply surviving right now, and maybe you are, but you can’t thrive until you survive. So survive today. Take a moment alone, to yourself, to breathe, move, scream, and cry through the anxiety, the fear, the grief, the pain, the anger, the guilt, the shame. Whatever you are feeling, let yourself feel it and grieve it, but also don’t forget to remind yourself that these feelings, visuals and sensations are ghosts of the past, and they have no real place in your present or future.

I’m right here with you – feeling the fear and living anyway. It’s almost time for me to pick up my daughter from school, and I can’t wait to see her beautiful face. I may have PTSD from our birth experience, but her birthday is more than just that. It’s the anniversary of the day she drew her first breath. It’s the anniversary of the day I became her mom. It’s the anniversary of the day that I begged all the powers of the heavens and Earth to give me the strength to stay tethered to this world. And I’d face all that trauma again just to be here with her on her special day. Right here. In the present. In this moment. Surviving AND Thriving.

I wish you a good mental health day.


Picture of Kristi Janssen

Kristi Janssen

Kristi Janssen is de eigenaar van Kalmeleon, maar vooral een moeder, een bloeiende complexe trauma-overlende en een doorbreker van toxic cycli.