Navigating Trauma Around the One Year Anniversary of COVID-19

Filed under: Health & Wellness,Heart of the Community,News |

By Anthony Nave, LCSW, Regional Director of Outpatient Services at Mountainside

A year has now passed since the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the United States.  Unfortunately, we are not out of the woods yet with the pandemic, despite progress with vaccine distribution.  While most would agree that the coronavirus has added to their stress, the pandemic has affected certain groups more than others during the past year. Some may see the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 as a celebration of resilience.  For many others, however, the pandemic has been a traumatic experience, even causing some to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which occurs when one feels overwhelmed by negative emotions and is stuck in a fight, flight, or freeze response. Those with PTSD are likely to be triggered around the one-year mark, which they may view as a “trauma anniversary” that prompts them to relive the distress they have endured over the past year.

In my experience as a licensed clinician in the mental health field, many of my teammates, clients, family, and friends regard this one-year anniversary with amazement that the pandemic has lasted as long as it has, along with an overall increase in grief because of all the losses we have endured.  There is also continued uncertainty about when we will be able to have more in-person opportunities for connection and more access to the physical experiences in the community that we used to take for granted. All of these thoughts compounded together can result in increased anxiety, potential for complicated grief, and more.    

How Different Groups React to the One-Year Anniversary of COVID-19

Our responses to the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus crisis will vary depending on how individuals are being affected by the pandemic currently and how they are feeling about these experiences, and the supports they have in place.  Grief is both universal and unique to all of us, and there is no set time limit in processing it.  The intensity varies as we each grow with it in our lifetime.  Generally speaking, reactions to the anniversary fall into three main categories.

Minimal Reaction

The first group of people are those who have had minimal negative experiences from the pandemic. This includes people who were able to retain their jobs, had sufficient savings in place before COVID-19 struck, or were able to maintain overall life balance in the face of change.  In other words, they had more resources, both financial and emotional, to weather the pandemic, and the right infrastructure in place to adjust to a more isolated and remote lifestyle.  Therefore, this group is likely to have little or even no response to the anniversary of the pandemic.

Grief Response

The second category consists of those who, like the first group, had support adjusting to the pandemic changes and more protective factors than others. However, they have likely encountered some setbacks, sudden losses, unemployment, deaths of loved ones due to the coronavirus, or an increase in underlying struggles.  These are traumatic experiences, but due to having more supports or protective factors in place, they have more ability to process the grief and pain from these experiences, without it turning into complicated grief or PTSD.

People falling into this category will likely have an increase in anxiety, sadness, anger, and/or irritability around the anniversary date.  Their specific emotions will be based on how they view the anniversary.  Those who have not made time to grieve the losses in their lifestyle will have more intense feelings.   

Extreme, All-or-Nothing Reaction

The final group consists of those who have experienced death, loss, and a significant increase in underlying issues, such as poverty and systemic racism, who had little support or protective factors during this pandemic. Those struggling with these hardships are likely to have developed PTSD, which often leads to trouble functioning in their day-to-day activities and mood, strain or dysfunction in their relationships, and even the abuse of substances, which can cause its own disorder. This group will likely have an all-or-nothing response. An anniversary date can trigger severe PTSD symptoms; alternately, the date may have very little impact because these individuals were already struggling with symptoms daily. As a result, the anniversary will not feel much different than any recent day.

Coping with a Trauma Anniversary

The most effective way to successfully navigate an anniversary date such as this is to have empathy for ourselves.  We are often very hard on ourselves and start feeling we should be handling this better, which frequently leads to more intense emotions.  Once we have empathy, we approach anniversary dates with more preparedness and understanding, and will plan more self-care and emotional supports, as well as coping skills, around it.   

An example of the type of ideal plan for such dates would be to:

  1. Make time to practice mindfulness before starting and ending the day.  Many associate the term “mindfulness” with meditation, but this could involve any creative, grounding activity. For example, people can also cope through the arts: drawing, painting, photography, writing, and learning to play music on different instruments. 
  2. Additionally, plan to practice self-care in the middle of the day, such as by hiking, reading a favorite book, or some other enjoyable or relaxing activity that allows us to destress. 
  3. Organize time to have phone or video calls with a supportive friend or family member. Recognize it will be a challenging day for part of the call, and then have a fun conversation as a distraction from the challenges. 
  4. Some may want to schedule a session on the anniversary date for extra support, so those who currently have a therapist should consider meeting with them. Those who do not have a therapist may find it helpful to explore their options for therapy to better navigate these times.   

Individuals who continue to struggle should be mindful that despite the challenges a trauma anniversary can present, there is opportunity for growth and increased resilience during a crisis, and professional support is available for those in need.

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