The "Anniversary Effect", sometimes called Anniversary Reaction, is defined as a unique set of unsettling feelings, thoughts or memories that occur on the anniversary of a significant experience (1).
For some, the day lives in infamy. For others, it is a time of celebration. Which one it is for you depends upon the state of your mental and emotional recovery from your burn injury.
This can evolve over time, and cycles of healing are normal.
Anniversaries are a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come, to appreciate our efforts and progress, and sometimes make new meaning about all that’s happened since that date. A chance to integrate this dramatic chapter into the narrative of our lives. Anniversaries also let us take stock, be truthful about what we still need and want, and remind us to take action to get those necessities (2).
But anniversaries do not have the same meaning for everyone.
If you are coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the anniversary date of your injury can trigger recurrent symptoms that may begin days or even weeks before the anniversary date. You might not even know why you suddenly find yourself experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety and distress or unstable moods.
For others, your “burnaversary” might be a cause for a celebration: a triumph over extreme or even life-threatening circumstances.
It will be a day to recognize the enormous progress you’ve made and the way you have reshaped your life. In fact, it can be a recognition of post-traumatic growth, or the positive and uplifting changes you have made as a result of your burn injury. In fact, many who experience post-traumatic growth state they wouldn’t change a thing about their life because of what they have learned about themselves and the growth they have experienced.
Once you recognize what's causing your symptoms, allow yourself to experience your feelings and link them to particular thoughts and beliefs about your burn injury.
Identify where in your body you're experiencing signs of distress. Being able to connect your body and mind to the incident will help you understand your experience. Trying some guided imagery, deep breathing, or tapping techniques can help physically calm your body's response to stress while slowing your mind down as well.
In an article called “Anniversary of a Burn Injury!”, Delores Gempel Lakowski conducted a poll of 128 burn survivors. Half of them were negatively impacted on their anniversary date. The other half did not experience negativity and surrounded themselves with friends and loved ones.
Interestingly, the amount of time since the burn injury had no impact on their reactions. Some whose injuries were years ago experienced the same turmoil as when the injury first occurred.
What differed was how people coped with their pain. Some chose to have a celebration of life while others were deeply saddened every time their anniversary rolls around.
Regardless, everyone found it important and helpful to remember their survival, surround themselves with family and friends, and to avoid triggers to the burn injury.
Here are some ways to prepare for your burnaversary:
Recognize the power of the date. Pay attention to the meaning you give the date and respect where you are in your recovery process.
Plan ahead so you know how you will spend the day. You may decide you want to return to the hospital and thank your caregivers. Or you may plan to celebrate with family and friends who were your support group as you recovered.
If you find yourself overwhelmed, be sure to talk to someone or even seek professional help.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to recognize your burnaversary--only what fits for you!
Michael Bergeron has a master’s degree in counseling psychology, is a clinical traumatologist and a licensed mental health counselor. He has extensive training in trauma and is trained in EMDR and Ego State therapy. He lives in Ft. Wayne, Indiana where he has worked for over 19 years at the Lutheran Hospital Burn Center as a trauma therapist. In addition, he has a private practice for the past 17 years and works with a variety of problems including trauma. Michael has been a presenter and a member of the emotional support team at Phoenix World Burn Congress for the past 17 years.
Psychology Today, the Anniversary Effect, May 19, 2011 online
The Grip of Anniversaries, Brain Injury Blog by Janet M. Cromer, RN, MA, LMHC