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Trauma Anniversaries: When the Past Isn’t Past 

Most of us in the UVA and Charlottesville communities remember where we were or what we were doing during the events of August 11th and 12th in 2017. The horrifying events of that weekend had a significant impact on many, especially those directly affected by the violence and those dealing with current or past cultural and community trauma. 

With the one-year anniversary of such events, strong physical, emotional and psychological reactions can re-surface, sometimes without warning. Symptoms such as anxiety, sadness, avoidance, memories or flashbacks, and nightmares are common reactions to memories of abnormal and traumatic events. We are neurobiologically wired to process a dangerous or negative event until we make sense of it. On anniversaries, that processing may intensify.   

It is important to take care of yourself before, during, and after an anniversary like this one. While we are publishing these tips for August 11th-12th, they are also applicable when dealing with painful anniversaries of any kind.

TIPS FOR DEALING WITH TRAUMA ANNIVERSARIES

  • Commemorate the event in a meaningful way, honoring the struggle and loss. 
    Plan a ritual or attend one that recognizes the magnitude of what you experienced and allows you to grieve the trauma in a safe and supported way.
     
  • Make a plan.
    Make a plan for yourself that includes time with supportive relationships, self-care, and rest.
     
  • Identify supportive people and activities that allow you to be yourself and generally reduce stress.
    Letting yourself do activities that give you a break from the distress allows you to process and re-charge so that you can more effectively engage with issues like violence, racism and social justice without burn-out or re-traumatization. It does not trivialize grief to oscillate between being with it and being away from it. Self-care and support allow you to stay with it in a way that does not worsen the trauma. 
     
  • Take a break, if possible.
    Be aware that ongoing news coverage, social media, and even conversation wtih family and friends can be taxing. Consider what opportunities you may have for breaks from these things and allow yourself those breaks if you can.
     
  • Be aware of triggers such as people, spaces and sounds.
    Triggers are more than just reminders. If you have not fully processed trauma, even the smallest reminders can create intense distress. Limiting your exposure to these reminders and making sure you give yourself moments to breathe and take breaks can allow you to stay engaged without being overwhelmed. 
     
  • Take time to breathe deeply and use grounding strategies to stay present.  
    Notice what your senses are taking in. Notice the supportive sensation of your feet on the ground. Being able to stay present allows your body and brain to calm its stress response so that you can respond in a thoughtful way that does not worsen the brain’s trauma response.
     
  • Try to avoid unrelated stressors during trauma and grief anniversaries.
    This is not the time to discuss a conflict with a friend or colleague, break up with a partner, or make a substantial life change. Have compassion for what you are experiencing. It will help you to avoid judgment of yourself and others.
     
  • Get information about community events related to the anniversary.
    Learn about community events so that you can make informed decisions about whether to attend an event or not. Everyone has different needs and expectations for support and advocacy. Make a decision that is best for you and not based on another person’s needs.
     
  • Allow yourself to grieve, but seek help if needed. 
    The events of August 11-12, 2017 had many layers of loss and put a spotlight on deep wounds in our society, locally and nationally. Every one of us is having multiple responses, emotionally, socially, and politically - and will continue to do so as we move forward. It is important, however, to seek help if your grief and trauma reaction is interfering with your ability to function in daily life. Seeking help is especially important if you are unable to sleep, are experiencing poor concentration, flashbacks, numbness, or high levels of tearfulness or emotional ups and downs.

In addition to help at CAPS and the Women’s Center, the Central Virginia Trauma Recovery Network is offering brief, early intervention trauma therapy services free of charge August 10-21st. For more information go to http://www.centralvirginiatrn.org or call 434-262-0248. In addition, check out this list of resources from Help Happens Here.

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