Anniversary dates of traumatic events can reactivate thoughts and feelings from the actual event, and survivors may experience peaks of anxiety and depression, according to psychologist Susan Silk, PhD, of APA's Disaster Response Network.

Around the anniversary of a traumatic event, people are likely to remember events clearly and many will feel emotions more intensely than usual. Reliving the sadness is a very natural part of the healing process. But there is no one right way to heal. Try not to compare your reactions to those of others. Each person is different, and each individual will find his or her own way of coping with the memories.

Some of the reactions those affected may experience as the anniversary date nears include difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, irritable outbursts, nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep and feelings of detachment from others.

APA offers the following coping strategies to help people through traumatic anniversaries:

  • Recognize and acknowledge feelings you may experience. Understand that your feelings are part of the recovery process.
  • Find healthy ways to cope with your distress. Share memories and feelings with someone you trust or just spend time with friends and family. Activities that allow your mind to focus on something other than these memories are a good coping strategy for some people. Contemplative activities like reading, thinking or just taking a walk are also a good approach. Avoid reactions that become part of the problem such as drinking or using drugs.
  • Engage in an activity that honors lost loved ones. You may want to plant a tree in their memory, make a donation to their favorite charity, participate in activities your loved one would have enjoyed or share happy memories with others. Consider volunteering; you may find that helping others actually helps you. 
  • Use your support system. Reach out to friends and family. Don’t isolate yourself. 

How psychologists can help

Psychologists can help by providing evidence-based treatments to help people manage their emotions around traumatic events. Most commonly, psychologists use therapy (sometimes referred to as psychotherapy or talk therapy). There are many different styles of therapy, but the psychologist will choose the type that best addresses the person’s problem and best fits the patient’s characteristics and preferences.

Some common types of therapy are cognitive, behavioral, cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, humanistic, psychodynamic or a combination of a few therapy styles. Therapy can be for an individual, couples, family or other group. Some psychologists are trained to use hypnosis, which research has found to be effective for a wide range of conditions including pain, anxiety and mood disorders.

For some conditions, therapy and medication are a treatment combination that works best. For people who benefit from medication, psychologists work with primary care physicians, pediatricians and psychiatrists on their overall treatment. Two states, New Mexico and Louisiana, have laws allowing licensed psychologists with additional, specialized training to prescribe from a list of medications that improve emotional and mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

To find a psychologist in your area, visit the Psychologist Locator.

Updated April 2011