On the anniversary of a traumatic event, some first responders can have an increase in distress, obsessive thoughts and feelings of helplessness, loneliness, along with overwhelming shame and/or guilt. Such reactions, can range from feeling mildly upset for a day or two to a more extreme reaction with more severe mental health or medical symptoms which can last for a longer period of time. Eventually, if left untreated, the trauma exposures can lead to a variety of mental health disorders, such as PTSD, depression and/or anxiety.
While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are four main types of symptoms:
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event through intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, or intense mental or physical reactions when reminded of the trauma.
- Avoidance and numbing,such as avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma, being unable to remember aspects of the ordeal, a loss of interest in activities and life in general, feeling emotionally numb and detached from others and a sense of a limited future.
- Hyperarousal,including sleep problems, irritability, hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”), feeling jumpy or easily startled, angry outbursts, and aggressive, self-destructive, or reckless behavior.
- Negative thought and mood changes like feeling alienated and alone, difficulty concentrating or remembering, depression and hopelessness, feeling mistrust and betrayal, and feeling guilt, shame, or self-blame.
PTSD triggers may be all around you. Even though it may sometimes feel like your symptoms can come out-of-the-blue, this is actually fairly rare. Instead, whether you are aware of it not, PTSD symptoms are often triggered or cued by an internal or external environment.
Triggers may also seem to come from out of the blue around the time of an anniversary. A trigger may happen while you are at work, home, or relaxing. Anniversary reactions may occur because of the way a traumatic experience is saved in your memory. Memories of trauma contain information about the danger that the event involved. The memory helps us be aware of when we should be afraid, how we should look at such situations, how to feel in that situation, and what to think. Trauma triggers can be composed of a combination of internal and/or external triggers.
- Feeling lonely
- Feeling abandoned
- Feeling out of control
- Feeling vulnerable
- Racing heartbeat
- Muscle tension
- An argument
- Seeing a news article that reminds you of your traumatic event
- Watching a movie or television show that reminds you of your traumatic event
- Seeing a car accident
- Certain smells
- The end of a relationship
- An anniversary
- A specific place
- Seeing someone who reminds you of a person connected to your traumatic event
An anniversary date can occur on any particular day of the week. Such an anniversary can be associated with a good or bad memory and associated feelings to either. As a first responder, who has had a variety of work-related traumatic experiences, such anniversaries can be a weighted neck-brace wrapped around your shoulders, seemingly pulling you down faster towards the abyss, cave, swamp or darkness.
A trauma anniversary reaction, can be the recurrence of emotional and/or physical distress experienced around the time of a past traumatic event or experience which can reactivate thoughts and feelings from the actual traumatic event.
Often, it can seem overwhelming to predict exactly what a trauma anniversary will bring up for you. However, preparing ahead of time could make the date a little less anxiety-filled, and stressful while making the time period a little more manageable. A planned self-care schedule can keep you on track so that you can manage your daily activities.
Because we often cannot avoid triggers, it is important to learn ways of coping with triggers. Effective, healthy coping strategies for lessening the impact of triggers can include some or a variety of techniques such as:
- Mindfulness and Relaxation exercises
But be mindful, what works for one person may not work for the next. Possibly consider taking time before the upcoming trauma anniversary to plan out what you’ll personally need to make the day go a little better. Make extra effort to stick to and keep on task with daily responsibilities or maybe you need to take a day off and switch up your routine entirely.
Seek out trusted family, friends, mentors, peer support and if you have one, your therapist, if you need additional support to make it through the anniversary period. Develop a safety plan, if necessary, so that you and your network have a plan in place that everyone is aware of and has agreed to follow prior to the onset of a crisis from the anniversary reaction.
Learn about your mental health diagnosis. It does not have to be life-ending or career-ending:
- Identify your triggers – make note of them and seek professional assistance to learn effective coping strategies.
- Learn to practice your coping strategies – the more coping strategies you have the better off you will be.
- Develop your safety plan in conjunction with your professional therapist, family, loved ones and programs.
- Learn to share-identify with your traumatic experiences versus wasting energy by sharing-compare your trauma experiences with other first responders. It does not matter how one has obtained a seat at the table. But rather simply knowing your own trauma experience carries the same validity as the next person who might be dealing with their own triggering anniversary.
Change up your narrative or story if you know that an anniversary date from a traumatic experience is slowly creeping up on the calendar:
- Possibly turn the day into a celebration by engaging with your self-care opportunities.
- Make a list of gratitude and acknowledge those who you are thankful and appreciative along your journey.
- Enjoy a special meal or travel to a convenient favourite spot where you can relax in a safe place.
One of the most important and empowering things you can do on a trauma anniversary is to reflect on where you are today, your progress, and your individual journey with PTSD.
Today, on June 24th, on the anniversary of one of my shooting incidents. I am still in a state of PTSD. However, I like to refer to my PTSD now as “Post-Traumatic Spiritual Development”. Even though my brain wanted to suck me into a day of staring at my belly-button while sitting on the couch instead of being active. Be willing to change your narrative. Good things can follow.
Today I enjoyed a fabulous experience with meditation, yoga, stretching, crossfit, and a special meal meeting with my wife and children, while checking in with a variety of my Tribe members who are trusted peers, who can offer support and encouragement and can assist through the anniversary period.
There can be tremendous growth and potential along our personal journey that embraces hope and recovery versus despair and suicide ideation. However, we are only ever left with (3) choices along the path of recovery, as we can learn to:
- Take it,
- Leave it, or
- Change it….
Simply, your life is worth it. You deserve it. Change your story, starting today. It is never too late to start along “The Road of Trials” while learning to walk in a “good way”. The only thing holding you back from starting today is your willingness to make a difference in your own life regardless of your trauma experiences by comparing your story to that of another fellow first responder or the difficulties you might be having with self-coping addiction behaviours, navigating your employer, insurance coverage carrier or connections with loved ones. Embrace the change and learn to be better off for it moving forward….always…one foot after the other…regardless the size of the stride.
About the Author: Bill Rusk, B.A., (Sgt. retired) is a retired 30-year policing veteran who has been involved in numerous serious traumatic events throughout his career with two separate police agencies. Bill has the dubious Canadian distinction of being the only modern day police officer, shot in the line of duty, where no suspect has ever been identified or charged. Bill has received numerous acknowledgements and recognition during a distinguished career. Bill has been heavily involved in police association work having served two-terms as a Director for the Police Association of Ontario (PAO) and the Ontario Police Memorial Foundation (OPMF). Bill is a licensed worship leader via the United Church of Canada, as well as a police chaplain. Bill is now the volunteer executive director for Badge of Life Canada.