When 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.
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