The 9/11 Commission opened their report with the “insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck” words: “[The day] dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States,” as Joan Didion writes in her book The Year of Magical Thinking.
And then the unthinkable happened. Four U.S. commercial airplanes bound for the west coast were hijacked, two of them taking down New York City’s prominent twin towers. The results were catastrophic, and thousands of people died. Grief touched the lives of everyone in America, particularly those who survived the perilous events or lost a loved one. Although today we’re remembering 9/11 as a tragedy that happened 18 years ago, that doesn’t mean that anxiety or sadness can’t get the best of you around the anniversary of a trauma.
What is a trauma anniversary?
Dr. Jennifer MacLeamy, PsyD, the Northern California executive director at Newport Academy, explains that these emotionally complex anniversaries can take people by surprise, even after 5, 25, or 50 years after the incident originally occurred. “The way trauma impacts people is a cumulative thing that’s experienced over time,” MacLeamy says. “If it’s been a long time, I could see how people would think it won’t affect them. But what people often notice leading up to a trauma anniversary is they get some of the initial reactions they had right after the trauma.”
This could come in the form of memories or dreams, it could also be hyper-vigilance or flashbacks. Mental health issues can also creep in: For example, anxiety, depression, or simply just irritability.
“There’s a lot of ways it impacts our bodies, and, especially if it’s been a while since the trauma happened, we don’t necessarily recognize it being related to the anniversary,” she says. “But somehow, our body knows.”
How do trauma anniversaries affect your body?
“Trauma reactions are pretty involuntary — it’s a brain process that happens when your body goes into that flight or flight,” MacLeamy explains. “What’s interesting about the brain-body connection is sometimes you have the physical sensations before we recognize what they’re about.”
The anxiety disorder PTSD works that way, too, she explains. We can feel it in our bellies, or in our shoulders. We’re stressed, and our minds later look for a reason for that. “If you can start to do anything to reduce that physical tension or keep it in mind that this is happening because of the anniversary, you can get in front of those thoughts,” she says.
How should I deal with a trauma anniversary?
Dealing with a trauma anniversary can look different for everyone, explains integrative medicine expert Heather Muszynski, head coach at the digital health startup Ginger. Some people will want to talk about it with friends or family who are familiar with the anniversary. Other people just want to be supported by not talking about it at all.
Dr. MacLeamy says it might be helpful to commemorate the day, or the loved one you lost. That could mean visiting a physical memorial, like the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. But you don’t have to plan a trip to remember the person you lost. If it was your dad, you could spend the day watching his favorite movies. If he loved camping, you could have a bonfire. “It’s great self care to reclaim the day,” MacLeamy says. “Say: OK, this terrible thing happened, but I’m going to consciously focus on the person I lost and take back the anniversary.”
You can also try mindfulness meditation if you’re feeling overwhelmed on the anniversary. “If we already have a mindfulness practice in place, it can make it easier to identify what emotions are arising and what they’re attached to,” Muszynski says. “When we’re able to identify an emotion and its origins, we’re better able to take steps to address them.”
MacLeamy says going out in nature or exercising can also help. If you’re experiencing a global kind of trauma, when it comes to something like 9/11, she says it can also be helpful to reach out to a larger community to plan an event, even one that’s not directly related to the trauma itself. “Do something that gets you out of your mind, out of your space, out in nature,” MacLeamy says. “Do something joyful for yourself so you can get out of that day and the body can settle down.