Have you ever felt pain and can’t figure out why? Maybe your stomach is cramping, you feel irritable, or your muscles are spasming for no good reason? In some cases, this could be your body remembering a trauma anniversary.
A trauma anniversary is when your body and brain remember the trauma of a former event, often on certain dates or during periods of time that once corresponded with that trauma.
The American Psychological Association describes them saying, “Anniversary dates of traumatic events can reactivate thoughts and feelings from the actual event, and survivors may experience peaks of anxiety and depression.”
For some, a trauma anniversary could coincide with a birthday or a holiday – these can be yearly sign posts, reminding us of what we have left behind or lost. A trauma anniversary could also coincide with a date, or a period of time, unique to you.
With the onset of a trauma anniversary, survivors may think they are declining in health or regressing. But the truth is that healing from trauma is not linear, so feeling heightened emotions or body pain during an anniversary is part of the process. In her book The Body Keeps Score, psychiatrist Bessel A van der Kolk MD invites trauma survivors to listen to their body and approach it with curiosity, rather than fear or repression. So, if you find yourself experiencing flashbacks, or feeling pain in an area that has since healed, listen to your body and have grace on yourself. You will get through this moment.
As you approach a trauma anniversary, here are some lessons from The Body Keeps Score that can help you re-centre and cope:
- Let someone you trust know that an anniversary is coming up.
Speak to a counsellor, a friend or your partner, and remind them that the date, or dates, of the trauma is occurring soon. Give them a heads up that you may experience some emotional or physical side effects to coincide with this, and you would appreciate their support. Ask them to check in, or plan a catch up on the date. Don’t try and survive this alone. You are strong, brave and capable – but we heal from pain in community.
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
– Bessel A. van der Kolk
- Befriend your body
Don’t resent your body for any pain it is, or may feel, during a trauma anniversary. Pain can be scary because it probes our fight-flight response, making us feel like we are back in the unsafe environment where the trauma occurred. Your body is reacting because it is trying to protect you. So rather than ignoring the pain, pushing through, or just plain getting mad at yourself, listen to what your body needs. Go for a run or do some exercise, practice deep breathing or treat yourself to a yoga class. Do a meditation or stretch. By doing these activities you honour your body and enable it to process the pain, bringing it back to the present.
“In my practice I begin the process by helping my patients to first notice and then describe the feelings in their bodies—not emotions such as anger or anxiety or fear but the physical sensations beneath the emotions: pressure, heat, muscular tension, tingling, caving in, feeling hollow, and so on. I also work on identifying the sensations associated with relaxation or pleasure. I help them become aware of their breath, their gestures and movements…
“The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.” Bessel A. van der Kolk
- Confront the lies
According to van der Kolk, traumatic events leave an imprint on the body. This is why certain stretches or movements can cause some people heightened emotion – it opens up a part of our body that we have repressed or numbed in order to survive. The traumatic event taught us lies about our body, our worth, and our ability to survive, which is why confronting our pain can feel overwhelming – we are afraid we are unable to survive this healing process. But you can heal, because there is so much more to you, and your body, than the pain it is repressing and the lies it has been taught.
If you feel safe, and comfortable doing so, consider writing or speaking out, the lies you have been taught through your traumatic experience. Here are some examples:
“Trauma tells me I am unlovable, but I know I am loved.”
“Trauma tells me I am a failure, but I know I am a success. I am a great (friend/parent/worker/partner).”
“Trauma tells me I am permanently broken, but look how much I have healed.”
“Trauma tells me I am never safe, but it is (say the date), I am (insert your location), and I am safe.”
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” – Bessel A. van der Kolk
Are you approaching a trauma anniversary? Do you experience flashbacks, or pain from a past event? Here’s what you need to do: Contact Colleen on 0434 337 245 for a FREE 10 minute consultation on how we can best help you or book online.