As the calendar circles back, for the very first time, to the dates on which so many of our lives changed in 2020, it’s tough to know what might resurface in each of us.
The day the first lockdown was announced – 23rd March – marked not only our realisation of the severity of the pandemic and the power it wielded over everything from our health to our lifestyles and relationships, but also the sudden dissipation of our sense of security and normality.
While some anniversaries see us buying cards or throwing parties, others we spend excavating our memories to unearth painful images and feelings – whether we intend to or not. The anniversary of lockdown may fall into the latter category for many of us, the involuntary dredging up of emotions being dubbed by psychologists as ‘the anniversary effect’.
“The anniversary effect is a collection of deep memories and associated feelings that occur around a certain date in the year, usually marking a key event in someone’s past,” explains psychologist and therapist, Şirin Atçeken. “It can last for a day or even weeks surrounding the events, as we mentally prepare to face our memories.
“Around this time, we may suffer higher levels of anxiety, depression, stress and loneliness. Sleep and eating patterns can be affected, and even things such as work productivity or focus levels might drop. It creates an annual cycle of trauma and, I believe, should be considered and treated as PTSD.”
This annual reaction is a side effect of the way our brains store memories – not to mention the fact that they make a special point of logging painful events more fastidiously than happy ones. We can thank our evolutionary mechanics for that.
“When our brains store traumatic memories, they override them with how we felt in that particular situation. So they store how our five senses experienced them, which makes them more real when we remember and can make us feel like we are reliving the moment.
“This is our brain’s way of protecting us, warning us of future dangers. Once we experience this initial pain, we learn to become more cautious or closed off.
Even if the date seemingly doesn’t register with us when it arrives, we can still be affected by this psychological mechanism – our subconscious has it diarised, whether we know it or not.
Recently, I woke up in a strange mood. I was irritable, low and sensitive. Drained but restless. It wasn’t until halfway through the afternoon that I realised the date – the birthday of a good friend who’d been killed in a car crash a few years before.
I usually see this temporal landmark approaching from a mile off, but – probably thanks to the whirlwind that has been the last 12 months – it had been nudged off my radar.
Once I acknowledged the date, I felt instant relief, the tautness of my mood immediately slackening as I took my eyes off my screen to think about my friend for a while.
These memories have resurfaced in lots of people this month.
“This time last year was awful,” Felicity Hannah, 38 from the North West tells me. “I remember so many of my friends losing their jobs and parents on the school run standing in little huddles and crying because they had been let go.
“Every day there were fewer and fewer kids at school and the parents’ carpark was just getting emptier and emptier. It was like something out of a film, the fear and the sense that we were still at the beginning of whatever was coming. It makes me feel dizzy to remember that dawning loss of any certainty about what our lives would look like.”
Others I’ve asked have told me they remember crying on the way to work, terrified of bringing home the virus, and of the sudden onset of acute fear and uncertainty. “It felt like the world was ending,” a friend recalled to me recently.
“I have had an increase in new patients who never experienced mental health issues before the pandemic, and old patients with past traumas whose existing mental health issues have been exacerbated by it.”
But even if you consider yourself to be perching on the more fortuitous end of the Covid-induced-disaster spectrum, you still might find yourself feeling out of sorts this month. See, we often don’t equate our experiences of loss or pain – especially those that don’t involve death – as trauma.
“There is a wide spectrum of trauma,” says Atçeken. Some events in our lives, we will naturally consider less traumatic than others – but that doesn’t mean they have any less significance. In fact, a lot of work that I do in therapy with my clients is often based around the ‘smaller’ events rather than big dramatic ones such as death or parental issues.
So while some of us will bounce our way across the calendar this season, others might find it feels more like a wade. Either way, Atçeken has some advice for making it out the other side.
This is essential for reflection and process. Meditating for at least 15-30 minutes per day will allow us to clear our mind and help us to understand how we are feeling. This year has been a lot, and meditation will help us to release emotions in a productive and healthy way
If you can, take some days off leading up to the anniversary, and a day or two afterwards. If you can’t, make sure you take long, regular breaks. During the pandemic, the only way we have been able to go is forward, and we have all put various pressures on ourselves during lockdown. Taking a breather, and taking a few days just for you is essential in slowing our minds and bodies, and shifting our perspectives.
The anniversary effect can make us feel especially lonely, but try not to isolate yourself. You aren’t alone and, in the case of lockdown, it’s important to talk to people and share your experiences. You may also help someone else out this way, too.
I would also recommend staying away from social media during this time, as it will only exacerbate your emotions and feelings, and make you feel more anxious. Remember, what you see on socials often doesn’t reflect reality and can bring negative feelings, including guilt and shame. This is what we need to avoid right now.