by Sarah Stiefvater
Depending on the day, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic seems like it was just yesterday or a whole lifetime ago. In reality, we’re quickly approaching the two-year mark of when this whole fiasco got really serious in the U.S. and, according to some mental health experts, that’s a date worth recognizing as a trauma anniversary (basically, an annual marker of a significant, traumatic experience). We checked in with Dr. Danielle Roeske, PsyD, Vice President of Operations and Residential Services at Newport Healthcare, for more information on what a trauma anniversary is, why it’s important to commemorate it and how even to do so.
What is a trauma anniversary?
Dr. Roeske explains that a trauma anniversary is an annual marker of a significant, traumatic experience or an event that brings up associated unsettling feelings or memories. “What constitutes as a traumatic event can vary from person to person based on their individual experience in a given scenario,” she notes. “Sometimes events that may not appear traumatic from one person’s perspective could be deeply impactful for another.” In addition to the start of the pandemic, Dr. Roeske notes that other examples can include anniversaries of the death of a loved one, an accident or significant health event, or, on a larger scale, an event that affects the collective, such as September 11th.
Should we be commemorating the two-year mark of the pandemic as a trauma anniversary?
Absolutely. “We have all experienced a significant amount of collective trauma over the past two years,” Dr. Roeske notes. (And we strongly concur.) “Whether someone has gotten ill, lost a loved one or mourns the loss of what life was like pre-COVID, everyone has been affected in their own way.” On top of these individual experiences, she adds, collectively we’ve been forced out of our comfort zones and asked time and again to encounter new and different ways of living. She adds that COVID is a particularly unique situation because while we may be observing an anniversary, the ‘event’ is still very much ongoing. “A marker of post-traumatic experience is when the events of the present resemble or trigger feelings from the initial traumatic event, so continuing to live with COVID while simultaneously healing from its effects can be difficult and requires concerted conscious effort,” Dr. Roeske explains. “Many of us may be struggling with those feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD because we are not only observing a trauma anniversary but still learning how to cope with the present situation.”
Why is it important to confront/think about trauma anniversaries?
As with any traumatic event or experience, bringing our unconscious feelings and/or reactions to conscious light is an important aspect of healing. “Similar to how we treat PTSD, prolonged exposure to the memories and experiences that are traumatic in a safe and controlled manner can help us gradually confront those events,” Dr. Roeske tells us. “This can be done through simple acts like open, verbal reflection, journaling, therapy, arts or any outlet that allows us to access and process our feelings in a conscious way.” While some of these strategies are done by reflecting inward, Dr. Roeske notes that there’s also a healing power in shared observations of these anniversaries which, while sometimes painful, remind us that we are not alone in our loss or collective trauma.
What are the best ways to commemorate this trauma anniversary?
In addition to the practices listed above (therapy, journaling, etc.), Dr. Roeske stresses the importance of leaning into gratitude while still acknowledging the hardship you’ve faced. That means looking for slivers of positivity without negating all the bad stuff that’s happened. She adds that it’s also important to take time to note the differences between the present day and the beginning of the pandemic to highlight your resilience, capability and the fact that with time things do change. “If you’ve lost someone, take time during this anniversary to honor them by doing something they loved,” Dr. Roeske says. “Take care of yourself by making sure you are getting enough sleep, exercising, meditating and fueling your body with nutritious food.”
Most importantly, she tells us, we need to remember we are not alone. “Most others can relate to the challenges of the pandemic and the stages of grief it has imposed. Lean on others for support if you are especially struggling.” That could be friends or family, or even a mental health professional who can guide you through this difficult time.
Another coping mechanism she says we shouldn’t discount? Laughter—when warranted and appropriate, of course. “Together, we have walked through some unusual scenarios that in hindsight border the absurd,” Dr. Roeske reveals. “Remembering to reflect and recognize while finding humor and gratitude are some of the most unifying, affirming life activities we can partake in, both as individuals and as a society.” So if the opportunity presents itself to gently poke fun at some of your more unhinged sanitary practices of March 2020, by all means, crack a joke.
Article originally published in PureWow.