Anniversary reactions: how to recognise them and 6 ways to cope

Sweden 2016. The air was as crisp as the fiery autumn leaves which had begun to fall. The smell of smoke filled the late September days.  My family and I were in the midst of the adventure of a lifetime. (Also the name of the Coldplay album which became the soundtrack to our trip.) We had bought a motorhome and were traveling around Scandanavia. Everything was perfect. I had my family around me, everyone was healthy, and each day was filled with magical experiences. 

And yet I felt fractious, irritable, sad, restless. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with me, so I sat down with my journal. As I wrote down the date, it became clear to me what was going on. It was late in September. I realised that this was not the first time I had felt this way. For me, the run up to early October is full of memories. On the 2nd of October 2009 I lost my mom to cancer. Exactly five years and 3 days later, on the 5 October 2014, I gave birth to my first child. An event that was supposed to be full of joy was weighed down with fierce anxiety when he was born with a serious birth defect and had to have a long operation at only two days old to correct it. 

I have come to realise that each year around this time, regardless of whether I am consciously awaiting it or not, I begin to feel uneasy.  Having done some research on this topic I have realised that I am not alone in this experience. It has a name: The Anniversary Reaction. 

In one study published by the U.S department of veteran affairs, the authors define an anniversary reaction as An increase in distress around the anniversary of a traumatic event and say that it can range from “feeling mildly upset for a day or two to a more extreme reaction in which an individual experiences significant psychiatric or medical symptoms.” (1) Another article published in Psychology today describes it poetically as “The annual echo of a trauma or loss” (2) 

Our sensory systems are constantly encoding information in our memories. When traumatic events are stored, so is all the extraneous information that goes with them: the light, the temperature, the colours. So it makes sense that when the same time of year rolls around each year, with all its accompanying sensory information, our subconscious is triggered to remember what happened in previous years and times. And so, even though I was in a different place to where my little boy was born, I was triggered. The emotions were coming up, even if I was not conscious that that the memories themselves were present in my mind. This can be particularly tricky when the anniversary reaction coincides with your child’s birthday!

So what are the symptoms you may experience through an anniversary reaction? It depends on who you are, as the responses are as varied as the individuals experiencing them. 


You may re-experience (consciously or unconsciously) the mental, emotional and  physiological symptoms you experienced at the time.  In other words, you may recall the memories, experience intrusive thoughts, feel anxious or depressed, or find your heart racing. 


You might find yourself desperately trying to avoid thoughts, places or people that remind you of that time. Perhaps you choose to drive a different route that doesn’t take you past where your child was hospitalised. Or maybe you find yourself taking on more and more work to avoid your feelings.


You might find yourself feeling very sad, without being able to articulate why, and you might want to isolate yourself with your feelings.   


You might find yourself agitated and restless, moody and irascible. Perhaps you feel you can’t  sit still or your sleep might be affected.  

Physical symptoms

You may even become physically ill as your immune function dips.

So what can you do? 

  1. Be aware and know you are not going crazy! I know I have often beaten myself up with thoughts like “What is wrong with you? Pull yourself together” This is not helpful. It is normal to have these thoughts, feelings and experiences and sometimes just knowing that can be reassuring. 
  2. Give yourself the time and space to grieve. Perhaps you are not only re-experiencing trauma but also grieving the baby who you lost, imagining what he or she would have been like at 1 or 2 or 3. You may find your grief more intense and overwhelming at these times. If your little one made it through those traumatic early days you may wonder why you feel sad, you have so much to be grateful for! But be gentle with yourself because you may be grieving the birth and newborn experience you wish you had had. Perhaps you will experience "Survivor guilt," remembering the moms you shared your NICU experience with who returned home with empty arms. Set time aside to go somewhere peaceful, perhaps take your journal with you, or talk to a friend. You might find it helpful to look at photos from that time, or this might be too triggering. Pay attention to how you feel and what you need. Remember that your spouse is likely processing his feelings in his own way, whether he realises it or not!   
  3. Be gentle with yourself. Particularly on your baby’s first birthday, try not to put too much pressure on yourself by organising an elaborate party that is going to put additional stress on your already stretched coping mechanisms. 
  4. Find a ritual that honours your experiences: both positive and negative. Perhaps that would mean writing to the hospital and thanking them for their care of your little one. As time moves on you could set up an event to raise money to support the NICU where your baby was born or a charity that does research into your child’s condition.
  5. Surround yourself with people who love and support you. This could be family and friends or even an online community of parents who have shared a similar road to you and will understand what you are going through.
  6. Remember that the passage of time will bring with it new memories of this season that may help to dilute the harder ones. 

If you find yourself in and out of hospital with a little one with ongoing medical issues, check out this article: 

To the mom next to her child’s hospital bed, here are five strategies to soothe yourself so you can soothe your little one


(1) Hamblen,J. Friedman, M. Scnuur, P. Anniversary Reactions: Research findings. PTSD: National Research centre for PTSD (Accessed on 25 April 2019) 

(2) Hendriksen, E. 5 ways to deal with anniversary reactions. Psychology Today. 22 September 2016

(Accessed on 25 April 2019)

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