Growing up I knew of two anniversaries, my parents’ wedding anniversary and the anniversary of their first date. Being the romantics that they are (and the fact that they dated for six year before marriage) they celebrate both every year. As I got older I realized they secretly observed their late mothers’ birthdays without talking about it. As I got older still I started noticing how some dates were so important that the arrival of the date the next year made us think about the year prior and sometimes we could almost relive that same stress or joy.
It wasn’t until I started doing work supporting survivors of sexual assault that I learned about anniversaries. Among trauma specialists of any kind, there is a notion that the body remembers trauma in the season and sometimes even the week of the anniversary of the trauma. It can just be the basic feeling sad and remembering, or it can be a really strong psychosomatic flare-up. Old symptoms that have been long gone suddenly reappear with a resurgence that matches original intensity.
As a health care provider I have to be mindful of the anniversaries I do know about and be inquisitive when I see symptoms reappearing without reason. Living in the Pioneer Valley and working with the patient population I do, my patients usually have done the work and know which seasons are hard for them. So if there is that level of self-knowledge it is my job not only to hear their worries, but to also hold and validate that the “anniversary effect” is quite real and they need to take extra care of themselves when their time comes around.
As an acupuncturist when an anniversary rolls in for one of my patients I’m on the look out for an increase in pain levels from an old car accident, increased anxiety or depression if there is any history of trauma or abuse and less obvious (but equally important) an increase in grieving when there is a loss of a loved one or a history of divorce.
Most of the time what a patient needs around a difficult anniversary is permission to temporarily change their life a little. Is it okay to take the day off of work and do something fun and positive? Is it okay to be extra tired and/or emotional in this difficult time? Is it okay to need to reach out to families and friends ahead of time and ask for some gentle encouragement and support? Yes, Yes, Yes!
In the same way every year we like to celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries, it is also important to honor the healing process from challenging anniversaries.
Our bodies remember things like weddings, first dates, birthdays of loved ones, important events, old injuries or accidents, work starting dates, getting fired dates, death dates, surgery dates, and so on and so forth. Even in the midst of a high stress situation (whether positive or negative) the body is inundated with sensory stimulus.
I still remember the afternoon heat on my back walking to the church on the day of my wedding, the feel of the evening drizzle on my bare arms as we walked home together at the end of our reception. I remember the taste and smell of our lavender wedding cake, the delicious local bread and the array of colors in the bouquets friends brought to adorn the church during the ceremony. I remembered all that and so much more even though I was peaceful, relaxed and joyful the whole day. Imagine what your body is capable of experiencing, even subconsciously, when the body goes into fight or flight mood and all senses are heightened.
If you don’t believe me try this exercise, take a moment today and just walk outside and experience this November day. Feel the crisp autumn wind, watch the bare trees moving with the wind, hear the crunch of the leaves beneath your feet and just let the body remember some of your November memories. See how much is there. Without very much effort you probably can drop into several different ages and though you might not come across anything other than moments in your life (in this season) when you were mindful, you might bump into some old memories that are long lost and worth remembering.
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