When Holidays Bring Not-So-Jolly Memories

“You’re not the same. You’re not supposed to be the same. You’re supposed to be different. This isn’t something you will ever forget.” ~ Daisy Whitney

Holidays are often portrayed as being joyous, holly, and jolly, but for many, it is a time of overwhelming sadness and painful reminders of past losses. For some, getting together with family and friends for the normal holiday traditions only reminds them of an extremely stressful or disturbing life event where they felt deep loss and hopelessness. It is a time that can trigger all sorts of complicated feelings, memories, and anxieties, and it is called the “Anniversary Effect.” 

The word anniversary is often associated with happy times, with celebrations. Anniversaries can also be connected with times of pain or remembrance. Take Curt, for instance (name changed). He found out about his wife’s affair just before Halloween. Because they had only been married a short time, their separation and eventual divorce was straightforward and finalized before the New Year. This meant his holiday season was a blur, filled with sleepless nights, deep sorrow, so many questions, and even thoughts of potential self-harm. It was the darkest time of his life. Normally filled with the Christmas spirit, that Christmas he retreated to his room when he saw other family members happily opening presents–as if his world had not just completely shattered. Although this “anniversary” occurred several years ago, Christmastime still triggers those memories and feelings for Curt. He has to work every holiday season to push through the side effects of the Anniversary Effect. 

These feelings come up every year–it may not be around the holidays, but for many, it is. A thick fog sets in with a heavy, bone-deep depression. It can cause real surprise to those who have done the hard work to heal as they will feel a deep sense of loss, pain, confusion, numbness, sadness and even anger. The feelings are eerily familiar to them, and the memories of past trauma(s) come flooding back–often in great detail. This is the essence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An anniversary, date, or even time of year may cue, or trigger, the memory of a traumatic event. Perhaps the most common reaction on the anniversary of a trauma is a repeat of the feelings, bodily responses, and thoughts that occurred at the time of the event. 

The traumatic event could be anything, really. It could be infidelity and divorce, as it was in Curt’s case. It could be the death of a loved one. The loss of a job. A miscarriage. A hard move.  The death of a pet. A car accident (or other similar incident). There are endless possibilities for what could be considered a traumatic event to someone; the point is that the anniversary of that trauma causes intense and confusing feelings when reminders pop up. Many of the individuals who experience these feelings report that the holiday season is inevitably and reliably a time of great difficulty for them.

So how can you and I be aware of those who may be feeling the aftershock of the Anniversary Effect this holiday season? Or if you are the one currently stumbling through a difficult time of remembering and reliving past trauma, what can you do to ease your pain? If you are worried by the anticipation of an anniversary, you may find it helpful to think about ways to cope in advance—google “cope ahead.” It has several suggestions that will help you get ahead of the negative feelings this time of year may bring in reliving not-so-jolly memories; allow me to share my favorites: 

  1. Remember, this too shall pass: Most people will feel better within a week after the anniversary of a traumatic event, and this lessens even more over time–the distress will become less frequent and less intense. 
  2. Make your own plans: On the anniversary itself, it can greatly help to have other things to keep you busy, distract you, and give you a break from memories of the event. You may choose to take part in an activity that may help create meaning or purpose for you like visiting a grave, donating to charity, giving blood, helping others/service of some kind, spending the day with family, etc. You could also try to create a new association–some enjoy an over-the-top positive event to associate with that day instead of the trauma. You could plan a vacation, go to an amusement park, run a marathon… A friend of mine always goes snowboarding on the anniversary of her mom’s death–just to try to have a little fun on such a hard day.
  3. Emphasize healthy lifestyle choices: Work to be at your best. Really strive to live a balanced lifestyle by getting a good amount of quality sleep, eating well, exercising, practicing self-care, etc. I talk about self-care in my office as a solid foundation; while it does not necessarily solve your problems, it gives you a floor to stand on. Without eating healthy or getting some kind of rest, then the stress of a trauma anniversary can send you spiraling ever-downward.  Signal to yourself that YOU are worth love, respect, belonging, etc, by treating yourself that way! 
  4. Let your people in. Friends and family want to help. They want to be there for you. They may not realize that you are struggling with the resurgence of difficult feelings related to your past trauma; be patient with them and let them in.  Tell them what you are feeling. They can help you reprocess your emotions and memories. Or maybe you do not want to talk about things in detail; telling others what you need to feel supported is so valuable in the healing process, whatever that looks like! (A suggestion to friends and family members of those experiencing the Anniversary Effect is to put a note in your calendar reminding yourself when their traumatic event occurred–just to be sensitive that day/week/month/season. I check in with my friend Curt on his June wedding anniversary every year because I have a reminder in my calendar. He appreciates the thoughtful gesture.)
  5. Try a self-help app:  There are free mobile apps to help with PTSD symptoms (PTSD Coach), relaxation (Mindfulness Coach) or other self-help skills. Download and try the app(s) in advance of the anniversary.
  6. Limit stress: I am always an advocate for limiting stress, but especially if/when you know you are going to be feeling extra stress due to this time of year. Stress looks different for everyone–whether it is cutting out extra commitments, limiting gifts, simplifying your schedule, etc, try to limit your stress this holiday season.
  7. Take a social media timeout: Sometimes, seeing everyone else’s “perfect” lives on social media can be too much. If there ever was a time to take a break or limit your social media exposure, trauma anniversaries are definitely one of those times! (For supportive friends and family members, be aware of what you are posting and how it may affect your loved one.)
  8. Be patient with yourself / notice your progress: If you find yourself having an anniversary reaction that seems like a setback, consider where you started immediately after your traumatic event. Take inventory of your progress, what you have done to heal, grow, and move forward. Remember that sometimes the past causes flare-ups in the present and that you are capable, strong enough, and have the tools to work through it. You did it once when it was hardest, and you will continue to do it year after year, when the holiday season comes around and knocks you off your feet…but only for a minute.

My final suggestion would be to consider getting treatment (or suggesting it for your loved one). If you did not seek help directly after a traumatic event and an anniversary causes suffering even years later, there is hope. My door is always open. While the holiday season is a beautiful time of year, it can be fraught with painful feelings for some. The suggestions shared in this blog post all circle back to one thing: Knowing and doing what is best for you. You can be fully present during the holiday gatherings only if you take care of yourself first. Know your needs, pay attention to your feelings, and make sure you are giving yourself the time, attention, TLC and support you need to overcome the Anniversary Effect. It is up to you and you can do it!

Happy holidays to you and yours!

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.


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Melissa Cluff, MS, LMFT, CSAT

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.