Are you feeling not quite right, and you don’t know why? It could be what’s known as an “anniversary reaction” to COVID-19. Research has found that around an anniversary of a traumatic event, individuals and entire communities may experience an increase in feelings of distress. This might include a surge of intrusive memories, thoughts, and feelings; a negative shift in your mood; or a marked increase in arousal, which wreaks havoc on your sleep and leaves you feeling ill at ease.
In the first week of March, my sleep radically shifted. I began to struggle to stay asleep, having one anxiety-filled dream after another — much like I did in March of 2020.
Early last March, things were already tense where I live in New York City. At the time, we didn’t yet understand the novel coronavirus; it was the liminal period between the virus “not being an issue” to it bringing vast sectors of the city that never sleeps to a grinding halt.
New Yorkers were going about their lives, but many of us were becoming apprehensive as we did so. As someone who used to travel all over the city, I felt anxious about breathing in the subway because other people were in there breathing, too.
But we can’t stop breathing. So instead, my eyes darted around as if I might be able to see and dodge the virus before it came my way. I was on high alert. My last subway ride was March 12, 2020. I had no idea what the next year was going to be like.
Do you remember that moment when you realized everything had changed?
Overall, one year later, I’m okay. I’ve been healthy and have had the privilege of working from home and avoiding groups. My own work and self-care rely on strength training, so I built a home gym in my apartment and cultivated an at-home movement practice.
But all of this neutral or positive news doesn’t line up with how I’m feeling at this moment.
How about you?
How are you one year later?
Ask yourself, “How am I right now, in this moment?”
I invite you to ask yourself, “How am I right now, in this moment?” Note the answer. Now check in with your body and ask, “How do I feel right now?” Does this line up with your thoughts, or is it dissonant? Keep in mind: there’s no right answer. It’s just information.
In the grand scheme of things, you may feel fine, yet your nervous system might not have gotten the message. You may feel jumpy, irritable, or more easily frustrated. You may feel sad as you grieve for the missed opportunities, canceled plans, and thwarted hugs.
Give yourself the time and space to acknowledge these feelings, and honor the fact that you may need more rest and care.
Simple self-care can help you cope with an anniversary reaction.
If you find you’re struggling with an anniversary reaction to the pandemic, try these five tips over the next few weeks:
1. Seek out social connection.
Feeling connected to others is crucial to healing. We connect through facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. While we may miss hugs and gatherings, we can still connect with one another. You can call or video chat with a loved one or your therapist, curl up with a pet, go for a masked walk, or grab a socially distanced outdoor coffee with a friend.
2. Drink plenty of water.
Be sure to keep drinking water throughout the day. Dehydration can contribute to feeling lousy, and multiple studies have uncovered a link between dehydration and anxiety. Simply drinking more water lowers the risk of anxiety and depression.
3. Get moving.
Exercise boosts your mood. If you aren’t feeling up to a home workout, that’s okay. Going for a walk, doing some gentle stretches, or having a dance party are all ways to boost your mood. Pick something you enjoy doing and not something you feel you should do.
4. Have compassion for yourself.
You have a right to have your feelings. Each of us has had our own unique lived experience, and each of us has a right to feel however we feel. Honor that by allowing yourself to experience your emotions. You may feel sad. Your feelings may ebb and flow — and that’s okay.
5. Make something.
Journaling, knitting, cooking, baking, gardening, or painting are all examples of creative activities many people took up after the first weeks of the pandemic. I suggest we keep them up because engaging in creative processes gives us space to process all of the feelings we’re sitting with.
While these are simple techniques, I acknowledge it isn’t always easy to follow through on them. Even I’m finding it hard to show up for myself and practice self-care, but I know from experience it’s more important now, while it feels harder. I invite you to start with one thing, perhaps having a few sips of water. Please be gentle, kind, and understanding with yourself and others as we all navigate our anniversary reactions.
If You Need Immediate Help:
If you’re having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, there are many people available to support you. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.
If you’re experiencing emotional pain and need support, Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741 in the U.S. or Canada, 85258 in the U.K., and 50808 in Ireland. It’s free, available 24/7, and confidential.