Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
It has been over a year since the world came to a sudden halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I notice that many of my patients, friends, and family are still feeling rather melancholy, in spite of what appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. This phenomenon actually has a name: the “anniversary effect.”
For most of us, it had been a long time spent without hugging our friends, visiting our relatives, going to the movies or favorite restaurant, traveling, etc. Some of us have been very much alone. If the weight of all of that is taking an extra toll on you, you are not alone. Our bodies and minds store painful memories that can be triggered by certain dates or seasons, such as the death date of a loved one, the annual reminder of a serious diagnosis, a once happy holiday or anniversary…or the one year anniversary of the start of a pandemic.
Some of my patients have expressed feeling a kind of persistent dread. Even if you have not been touched by a death or hospitalization from the pandemic, you have still lost plenty. Important events were either postponed or cancelled. Our routines, social lives, religious rituals, and sense of security have shifted dramatically. The magnitude of deaths (now surpassing 567,000 in this country alone, and a whopping 3,000,000 worldwide) affects us all, whether we consciously realize it or not. Anxiety is a normal and even typical reaction.
Our responses to this anniversary effect will change over time. Common symptoms can include difficulty sleeping, problems focusing, irritability, fatigue, frustration, anxiety, and depression.
These feelings are normal. Acknowledging grief anniversaries is healthy. Allowing yourself to feel the emotions that come up with difficult anniversaries is the right thing to do. Avoiding these true feelings by using denial is not.
Let’s focus on what we have learned and gained during these difficult times. Let’s practice kindness, consideration and compassion, and gratitude for what we do have. If needed, find a therapist – knowing, however, that at this time, demand is high and therapists are in relatively short supply.
Here are some tried and true self-help suggestions that may work for you. Practice a daily routine that includes exercise and nutrition, and maintain structure in your life. Sleep is critical, so do your best to get seven or eight hours every single night. Seek out safe human contact and physical touch. (One of my daughters adopted a dog, as so many have over this past year. If you’re up for the work and the expense, it works wonders!) Gradually we will all become comfortable re-entering the world in ways that were once familiar.
And, critically, if you have not done so already, get vaccinated. That will safely expand your bubble, and will help to bring about everybody’s return to “normalcy.” Let’s be gentle with ourselves and with others, and we will all get through this together.