Trauma and the Body: When Anniversaries Aren’t So Happy

Sitting at desk looking at a calendar with a thoughtful frownWhen we think about anniversaries, we often think about celebrations and the observation of long-term commitments. However, some anniversaries aren’t necessarily well remembered and can be anything but welcome and joyous.

We often hear about the connection between mind and body, and one of the ways this connection is especially interesting is the way in which we store and remember traumatic memories.

We all know memories are stored in the brain, but what many people are not familiar with is the idea that our bodies also store memories at a cellular level. We experience the world through all of our senses—sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste—and all aspects of our experiences get imprinted into our cellular memory.

This is why the stimulation of certain senses can trigger a memory. For example, you may smell Elmer’s glue and be reminded of your elementary school classroom. Or you may taste a really great pumpkin pie and think of your grandmother. Or, more traumatically, someone may hear the sound of a car backfiring and feel terrified because of the time they witnessed a shooting.

The specifics of how and where memories are stored is very scientific and outside the realm of my expertise; however, the simple concept of “our bodies remember” is important and can be useful to understand. Sometimes we may not be consciously aware we are coming up on the anniversary of a particularly traumatic or unpleasant event, but knowing our bodies remember can help us understand what might be going on when negative emotions get triggered.

I recently had an appointment with somebody I’ve been working with for a few years. She came to the session feeling uncharacteristically irritated and almost hostile. She was annoyed by my attempts to figure out what might be going on. She reported nothing was wrong, it wasn’t the time of month she often feels more down than usual, and nothing in particular had happened to set her off. But her mood and demeanor told a different story.

When I pointed out that she seemed more agitated than normal, she agreed she felt really “off” and was frustrated because she had no idea why. In an attempt to figure out where to go next, I asked if she was familiar with the idea of “anniversary reactions” or if she had heard of the term “cellular memory.” She replied no but looked interested.

The day you lost a loved one, found out about a betrayal, or experienced some event that made you feel as if your world was crashing down gets imprinted in your cellular memory, and you may find yourself feeling especially vulnerable on the anniversaries of these events.

I explained that our bodies have their own memory systems, at a cellular level, and sometimes our bodies remember things that may not necessarily be at the forefront of our minds. I talked about how I personally think back to what may have happened on a particular date in the past if I find myself feeling unexplainably anxious or upset. I saw an immediate shift in her mood as we began talking about what was going on for her a year prior.

Rather than responding with short, snappy remarks, she began talking about the painful breakup she experienced a year earlier. She revisited the pain, confusion, and anger we had discussed at the time, but this time she demonstrated a greater sense of perspective and gratitude for how she had grown in the months since she experienced the heartbreak. Making the connection to this potential explanation helped her to leave the session in a much more uplifted place.

Our bodies tend to hold on to experiences from the past, and we may find ourselves re-experiencing emotional or physical symptoms at a later date, perhaps when we are better equipped to effectively process and view the experience with a new outlook. The day you lost a loved one, found out about a betrayal, or experienced some event that made you feel as if your world was crashing down gets imprinted in your cellular memory, and you may find yourself feeling especially vulnerable on the anniversaries of these events.

If you notice yourself feeling unusually anxious, weepy, or down and can’t seem to figure out why, stop and consider whether the date correlates with anything particular in your past. Being aware of the concepts of anniversary reactions and cellular memory can help you weather the storm of these emotions. Acknowledging you may be experiencing an anniversary reaction may help you to regain a sense of control. With this recognition comes an option to accept the feelings and know they will pass, or begin to process them with some distance and perspective.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, therapist in Vienna, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • kelley

    June 9th, 2016 at 1:45 PM

    I have a friend who was raped on a date with a guy and even if she tries to block it out, yeah, there is something physical that happens to her when it gets close to that date and she just kind of starts to shut down for a while.

  • Marie

    June 9th, 2016 at 3:51 PM

    Even though I have worked hard to get over a lot of my anger that I grew up with as a child, you know, child of divorce and all that, I still feel very tense when I am around family members that I was around a lot during that period of my life. It is not as if they hurt my physically but I think that I have this gut reaction that makes me feel like they could have done to help me through all of that upheaval in my life and given that they didn’t, there is a part of me that wants little to nothing to do with them now.

  • Ruthanne

    June 10th, 2016 at 7:16 PM

    I get that your inner world is not congruent with your interactions with family. I have been journeying this ,path AS WELL. It May be necessary for you to decide whether to approach individuals on what you are feeling, and thinking. If no, maybe look at forgiveness work. I caution you: do,not forgive too soon. It may bring on the experience of disappointment again.
    Let a therapist guide you. What. You. bring up is Very Valid stuff. Do not push it away or ignore it. But seek the
    Aid of a qualfied professional to help you.

  • Rosa

    June 10th, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    Wow, I read things like this and I know that living with some kind of emotion like this is difficult but I also come to realize just how little credit we often give ourselves and our bodies for being able to do all of the amazing things that we can! It’s as if we think that if we try to bury these things that the body will forget, but there is always something that is there wanting you to remember, wanting you to confront and persevere I believe. I think that it is pretty awesome to know that we all have this ability to challenge, meet and ultimately overcome adversity.

  • Jeremiah

    June 11th, 2016 at 2:43 PM

    the mind and body connections are indeed pretty powerful

  • Heather

    December 26th, 2016 at 2:48 AM

    I felt like that in the few days leading up to the first anniversary of my husbands death 10 days ago.I was anxious and depressed and agitated and upset.I knew i had t take the day off.. but the anticipation was worse than the actual day. I didn`t want any fuss or special meal with family or anything like that. I cycled out to the cemetery and put flowers and a card on his grave, My sons and their families went in the evening. It turned out to be a good day. It was sunny and I enjoyed my bike ride with was 24 kms return.I understand what you are saying about “cellular level”..I feel quite exhausted and am happy to have a two week holiday from work.My husbands birthday was 2 days before he died , so that was another milestone.

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