A friend recently remarked that he had PTSD thinking about this time last year, as the COVID pandemic began to entirely collapse his reality along with the rest of us. I easily related to his distress and was reminded of a useful concept called the anniversary reaction. The overlap between anniversary reaction and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is so substantial that a lot of helpful information on anniversary reactions can be found on the website of the VA’s National Center for PTSD. One difference between the two is that typically PTSD is a more debilitating syndrome with a longer duration.
An anniversary reaction occurs when there is an increase in subjective distress near or on the date of highly noxious events. These events could be the death of a loved one, natural disasters, human-made disasters such as terrorism, or some other form of personal loss. How COVID impacted us is a potentially viable fit for many anniversary reactions.
Commonly seen symptoms in anniversary reactions are intrusion, avoidance, negative thoughts, low mood, and an increase in reactivity. Many people report feeling an unwanted rise in upsetting memories of the event. While sometimes the triggers or cues for these unpleasant memories can be identified, many of these jarring recollections just seem to occur randomly out of the blue, with the time of year being the only recognizable connection.
Anniversary reactions are often accompanied by a depressed mood, and we may notice having more negative thoughts. These feelings may include guilt or shame. It is also common to experience an edgy uneasiness and irritability. We may find it difficult to sleep or concentrate. There might be an increase in feeling worried for the safety of others and loved ones. Annoying physical symptoms like pain, fatigue, and stomachaches can be brought on by anniversary reactions.
Intrusion, the most common symptom, occurs during an anniversary reaction when there is a reactivation of the same sensations, feelings, and thoughts that happened during the unwanted event. Frequently, people also actively avoid circumstances, places, or people that are connected to anniversary reaction-inducing event. For example, a veteran with a vulnerability to PTSD may avoid Veteran’s Day festivities to protect their emotional equilibrium. The range of anniversary reactions can go from being mildly upset for a day to an intense psychiatric or medical collapse requiring immediate attention.
Just like the infamous date of 9/11 now allows us to share a collective observance, we are all beginning the psychological process of making sense out of how COVID in a post-vaccination world has impacted each of our realities. As we emerge into our post-COVID pandemic world, creating buffers from constantly being reminded of our mutual vulnerability might be necessary, and perhaps challenging, to develop.
Most of us will need an emotional adjustment to a post-pandemic reality. Each person will grapple with this in their own way when their time is right. What is clear is that no one follows a formulaic, predictable program of experience and emotional adjustment. How we go through this kind of period depends on many factors such as our psychological composition, the type of upset we had, and the support systems we can access.
In 1981, the English rock band The Police made a song that seems fitting almost forty years later. From their album Ghost in the Machine, the song “Rehumanize Yourself” is about how we can become disconnected from our humanity when placed in certain situations. We are going through profound changes as a society that require self-compassion and nonjudgmental curiosity to rehumanize ourselves into another new normal that’s evolving daily.
However, it’s important to remember that if you feel overwhelmed and distressed often, you’re not alone, and there is no need to suffer further. Please consider consulting with a mental healthcare professional to help you through these challenging times.
Dr. Jeffrey Singer maintains an active forensic and clinical practice. He is licensed for independent Psychology practice in New Jersey and New York.