If you have experienced a major crisis, such as a natural disaster or the sudden death of a loved one, you are probably all too aware of the increased mental health risks that immediately follow. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders including phobias went up dramatically.
Less well-known, however, is the higher risk for phobias and other psychological disorders in the years that follow. The anniversary of a crisis appears to be a particular trigger. Most of the research that has been performed on so-called anniversary reactions focuses on PTSD, since this is the most common reaction to a crisis. Nonetheless, phobia symptoms may also occur or recur during this time.
What Is an Anniversary Reaction?
An anniversary reaction can be loosely defined as an unusual spike in psychological distress that occurs on or near the anniversary of a traumatic event. The noted spike in the level of distress is a key to diagnosing an anniversary reaction. Those who suffer from ongoing phobias or other psychological disorders may experience a higher spike than those who normally have no such conditions.
Anniversary reactions may develop slowly, as the sufferer begins to dwell on the event in the weeks and months preceding the anniversary. They sometimes develop unexpectedly, with a flood of emotions that may, at first, seem unexplained.
Symptoms of an Anniversary Reaction
The symptoms of an anniversary reaction vary dramatically from person to person. You may find yourself obsessing about the day of the event. You might experience flashbacks or dwell on the actions that you took. If you experienced the loss of a loved one, you might feel guilty and wonder if there was anything you could have done to prevent the death. You may experience "survivor guilt," in which you wonder why you were spared. Sadness and depression are also common.
These symptoms often occur in tandem with an increased phobic reaction to things that remind you of the event. For example, some Hurricane Katrina survivors report increased fears of thunderstorms and hurricanes. Some people who lived in New York during the September 11th attacks report mounting phobias of airplanes.
Who Is at Risk for an Anniversary Reaction?
Theoretically, anyone who has experienced a major crisis could be at risk for an anniversary reaction. However, the risk appears to increase according to the level of personal involvement in the disaster. Identified factors that may increase risk of mental health problems following a disaster include, but are not limited to:
- loss of a loved one
- serious injury to self or a loved one
- panic or horror during the disaster
- loss of property
- separation or isolation from loved ones
How Long Does an Anniversary Reaction Last?
The length of anniversary reaction varies from person to person. In general, good coping skills and stress management techniques coupled with a strong support system tend to minimize both the severity and duration of anniversary reactions. A typical reaction may subside within a week or so, but if you already suffer from phobias or other disorders, your reaction may be a bit longer-lived.
Managing an Anniversary Reaction
Successful management of your anniversary reaction depends largely on its severity. Nonetheless, there are several specific measures that you can take to help you cope.
- Make Plans -- Planning in advance what you will do on the anniversary date can help to minimize anticipatory anxiety. Some people like to participate in a memorial activity, such as visiting a loved one's grave. Others prefer to do something completely unrelated to distract themselves from their feelings.
- Stay Active -- In the weeks before and after the anniversary of a traumatic event, you may find that you are less energetic than usual. Resist the urge to sit at home, instead keeping yourself busy with things that you enjoy. Exercise is a terrific natural anxiety reducer, so keep moving.
- Communicate -- Your friends and family can be a valuable source of support. Let them know what you are going through, and suggest specific ways to help. If your immediate relatives were also affected by the disaster, consider enlisting the help of your friends. An outside perspective can be a great blessing.
When to Seek Help
Most anniversary reactions are relatively mild, and tend to gradually lessen over time. However, the anniversary of a tragedy can be the trigger for a long-lasting or severe phobia. If your symptoms feel unmanageable, they begin to limit your daily life, or they do not dramatically lessen within two weeks of the anniversary date, consider seeking professional treatment. Many phobias worsen over time, but with proper treatment, there is no reason for them to take over your life.Sources:
National Center for PTSD: Anniversary Reactions. August 7, 2009. Retrieved August 23, 2009 from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/anniversary-reactions.asp
National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. Two Years After Katrina: A Survey of Mental Health and Addiction Providers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. August 22, 2007. Retrieved August 23, 2009 from http://www.thenationalcouncil.org/galleries/press-files/Summary%20of%20Survey%20Findings.pdf