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Episode 220: Anniversary Reactions


And hello to you and welcome to the Richard Nicholls podcast,

the personal development podcast series that's here to help inspire,

educate, and motivate you to be the best you can be.

I'm psychotherapist Richard Nicholls, and this episode is titled Anniversary Reactions.

And if you are ready, we'll start the show.

Ho, ho, ho everybody. Christmas is coming. I expect you noticed. Hard to miss it really. Once Halloween was out of the way,

the TV didn't shut up about it, whether that's John Lewis making me cry a little bit cuz the dad in the advert wants to learn to ride a skateboard so he can bond with a foster child.

Or Tesco's weird parody of a party political broadcast. Christmas is everywhere and it's inescapable and that's fine for most people.

But what if Christmas is a bit of a sore subject?

Now, I'm not a fan of the consumerism that comes with Christmas. It's tired and cliche and has absolutely nothing to do with what most people pretend to be celebrating.

Is it about the birth of Jesus? Well, no, because Jesus wasn't born in December.

That much is obvious from everything written about him.

Is it about celebrating the life of Jesus then instead of the birth?

Well, No, I'm not religious and even I know that Jesus was massively against materialism and money lending.

So let's forget about the whole Jesus thing and just say that it's the Winter Equinox, a pagan festival celebrating the beginning of longer days and shorter nights.

Well fine, but that's still got nothing to do with a fat man in a red suit giving away presents, and that song by Mariah Carey is already getting on my nerves.

So it's easy for people to not like Christmas, but what if it's taken another stage further? What if Christmas actually triggers some really very unpleasant emotions?

You see, there's a psychological process that we call an anniversary reaction, which sounds nice, but anniversaries aren't always a happy thing.

Anniversaries aren't just for happily married couples and trauma can create echoes that are mostly predictable.

We often know that they're coming and we can start winding ourselves up to it in advance. And some say that anniversary reactions are a symptom of ptsd.

But it's not just the anniversary of a tragic event that can create problems this time of year can too, cuz once a trigger to anxiety has been created, it feeds itself every year.

Say a very close friend or relative dies in September.

That first Christmas is likely to be a bit rubbish as it's the first Christmas without them.

And the juxtaposition, the contrast between the inward emotion and the external world, which is all smiles and happy families, can make us feel even worse.

And so we begin to associate all the Christmas joy with feeling depressed.

And our brain doesn't like to forget these things. Consciously, we know that we are safe, but these sorts of responses aren't conscious.

They're driven by our instincts and not all of our instincts are given to us genetically. Some of them are learned either through repetition over time or through trauma.

So the next year, the jingle bells the John Lewis ad, the images of Santa and so on they can trigger the symptoms again.

Same things with birthdays, and we need to be aware of all of this because it's predictable. If we know it's coming, then we can ask for support.

We can learn to be more resilient to it and break the negative associations.

There's been quite a few studies into this sort of thing over the years. There was an interesting, investigation a few years ago following a flood in Thailand.

And what they did is they followed 400 residents checking for PTSD symptoms every couple of months.

As the months went on the residents PTSD scores steadily declined.

But on the one year anniversary of the flood, the scores among the residents where flooding was the worst and rescue work had been the most difficult.

They went through the roof. A part of them back there in the back of their mind was reminded of the anxiety and reproduced it.

We know that grief in particular can have a dramatic effect on our body, our heart in particular.

The phrase, A Broken Heart doesn't come from nowhere. Loss, bereavement, it hurts. And genuinely does have a cardiovascular effect.

It hurts the heart.

Probably the worst thing to happen to somebody is to lose a child. It's, it's tragic. It's unimaginable, but it happens.

And studies into monitoring the health of the parents does show that profound grief has an effect, even evidence to suggest there's an anniversary reaction too.

It seems that with mothers in particular, decades later, there is a significant spike of people dying during the anniversary week of the child's death, but not suicide.

This is years later, but of heart problems, not the cheeriest of research, but it goes to show just how much of an effect our mental state has on our physical health.

So what do we do about it?

Well, like I said, if you know it's coming you have the luxury of being able to prepare for it.

So make sure you eliminate any extra stress in your life. For goodness sake don't move house that week or change your job or anything like that.

See a therapist. Learn some tricks of the trade. Learn a little bit about hypnosis or meditation. Learn to relax and remember that the anniversary doesn't last forever.

Anniversary reactions usually fade within a few weeks anyway. It's rare for it to last even a month.

Most clients who come to me with this sort of issue have a tough couple of weeks, but then come out the other side much happier in comparison.

If it's Christmas that triggers these feelings then remember.

Come Boxing Day, there's gonna be Easter eggs on the shelves. It'll be gone and forgotten in no time.

There's a phrase I like. Knowing that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, makes the tunnel less frightening.

So don't bury your head in the sand.

The good thing about the anniversary reactivity is that it isn't a secret to you. You know when it's coming.

Prepare for the fact that it's gonna be a tricky time. And put a plan in place to give you some support with the feeling of dread, maybe, that's brewing.

We call that anticipatory anxiety. That feeling when you just know that something bad is coming around the corner.

When it's something good, we call it excitement, but when it's something bad, its anxiety. And in the case of the anniversary effect, anticipatory anxiety.

This is good because you have advanced warning and if it's about a very specific day, someone's birthday or the anniversary of a traumatic incident, you can make plans for the days leading up to it or just after as well.

Organizing extra self-care, letting friends and family know that you're gonna need some support from them.

I know it can be tempting to isolate yourself around an anniversary like this. But that's not likely to make things better.

So you might need to push against those urges to hide away, especially if your self-esteem is low and you don't feel as if you are entitled to support.

You might find that you are not the best judge of what you deserve in those situations.

Everyone deserves support. You don't have to go through things like this alone.

In fact, you don't have to go through anything alone. So let people know in advance what you might need. Even if it's just a quick cup of tea.

If you care about them, there's a strong chance that they care about you. Maybe more than you care about yourself.

And talking things through with them can be a great way to process what happened and how you feel.

Especially if they went through it with you at the time.

Obviously it depends what it is that it's the anniversary of, doesn't it? But it can be helpful to talk things through with someone who experienced the trauma alongside you, if that's what happened.

In those cases you don't have to explain too much. They already know what happened.

Even if everyone's experiences are different, it can still be very supporting to spend time with someone who knows exactly what it was like to go through it.

Going through a traumatic event together creates a bond of shared experiences, a trauma bond.

And if there's someone who has worked through their experience and is emotionally ready to talk about it with you. Then do that together.

But don't just do things on the day. In fact, research has shown that the days immediately after an anniversary are actually the hardest for people.

So like I say, plan ahead to have extra support, arrange some meaningful activities.

And, depending on how your mental health is, do be aware of the possibility of the need for some sort of crisis plan

in case symptoms become really serious and there are thoughts of self harm.

It would be great if your closest allies already knew that this was on the radar, but if they don't now might be a good time to let them know how serious things have been for you

so that they can check in with you. They can keep you distracted, stop you from being alone more importantly.

And obviously I can't cover all aspects of trauma in a 15 minute podcast episode.

You do what works for you and your reactivity, which for some might be to commemorate what happened in some way, especially if this is the anniversary of someone dying.

One of the things that keeps anniversary reactions alive is what we would call unresolved grief or stuck grief. If there are aspects of what happened that still feel unresolved,

questions that you're not gonna find answers for, no matter how many times you ask.

Then you might find it helpful to commemorate the event with some sort of ritual, something ceremonial.

Unless this is full on ptsd, which doesn't need an anniversary to create a reaction, shining a light on what happened, shouldn't retraumatize.

It doesn't shine a light on the trauma. It shines a light on the process of moving forward.

Maybe do some journaling to prompt some thinking and processing.

If you simply Google the phrase, Grief Journaling Prompts you'll get dozens of blog posts from people with lists and lists of things to write about.

And it honestly helps. It really, really does.

It can definitely help you to see how far you've come as well. Since whatever happened happened

Chances are that after the event, you are in a worse place than you are now. If so, congratulations, you are recovering.

Think about that, write about that, talk about that. Talk about how far you've come and how you've grown since the event.

It can be really very healing. Even the most difficult of experiences can have a positive effect on our life.

If we can look past the trauma and see the bigger picture. See if you can find some. They're there if you look.

Has it brought you closer to somebody? Has it helped you to see new possibilities or priorities? That sort of thing.

Now might be a good time to think about it. Rather now than as the anniversary gets closer and when panic sets in.

Nervousness and anticipatory anxiety is relatively easy to handle compared to the full on heart pounding, sweaty palms, and that feeling of being unable to breathe.

But even in those situations, you have to accept that it's normal to feel that way.

Your body's doing what it thinks is the right thing to do to keep you safe.

Adrenaline is good. It keeps us away from tigers and lions and so on, but you might have to keep telling yourself, I am safe. This is only adrenaline. Everything's gonna be okay.

I know it doesn't feel like you're safe in those moments, and that's why you have to keep reminding yourself that you are safe.

Eventually your body will realize that there's no threat.

You might have to do a bit of a dance or go for a run or something, but it will pass. Even panic attacks do stop eventually.

Of course, I say talk to your friends, talk to your loved ones about how you're doing, but you might have to put your hand in the air and say I think I need a therapist.

If these reactions are going on most days for a couple of weeks and causing other problems like drinking or self-harm, then it might PTSD or depression rather than just an anniversary reaction.

Get on the UKCP or BACP websites. Search out a therapist who can help you cuz although mates are great and journaling is super helpful and insightful.

Sometimes you need a little bit more.

You might need to work out some clearer defined coping strategies and ways of regulating your emotions.

And then you can look at the triggers of your reactions with your therapist and do some graded exposure to the memories.

It might take you a year to have it under control, but at least you are ready for the next anniversary.

So I know dealing with a difficult anniversary can be really quite distressing, really quite hard to handle for a lot of people.

But remember, this is predictable, it's an expected event. And so by preparing yourself for it, putting together a plan for resources and support, you can and you will get through it.

Of course, if you want some extra help with how to be your own therapist maybe consider becoming a patron of mine on

There's a lot of psychoeducation episodes on there with new content every single Monday, and it would really help you I'm sure.

In the meantime enjoy December. Don't have too many mince pies or the novelty wears off.

And that's a slippery slope to mince pie addiction.

And the only people who benefit from mince pie addiction are Mr. Kipling and that company whose share price tanked last month that makes diabetes medication.

Or alternatively screw it!

Have as many mince pies as you like it's Christmas.

Either way, I'll be back in the new year to talk to you again then.

Bye bye 2022. Nice knowing you.

Speak to you next time. Take care.