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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

Anniversary Reaction: September 11th

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 10th 2011

woman distresSeptember 11th is upon us and there is one thing we want to be aware of for ourselves, friends, family, colleagues and even those you may run across on the street: Anniversary reactions. This is the experience of reliving the anxiety associated with the trauma during the anniversary of the event like September 11th. We can all-of-a-sudden find ourselves feeling irritable, afraid, stressed or in states of panic. One of the best articles I've found on anniversary reactions comes from Louis Nayer, author of Burned: A Memoir. It does a wonderful job exemplifying and normalizing our continued reactions to these traumas and I felt it was important to share it during this time. 

The title, Happy Anniversary:

"Happy Anniversary! Those two words are usually words of celebration-a joyous marking of time-usually of a couple staying together. The words can also signify other happy events-but the key word is "happy."

However, "anniversary reactions" as they're known in the therapeutic world signify something much different-a haunting, a trigger from the past that sometimes takes over someone's body, literally. That's what happened to me.

When I was four years old, my parents were severely burned in the basement of a rental house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My father, a physician, and my mother, a nurse/educator, took their first month-long vacation with my sister and me and our babysitter. We left the concrete heat of Manhattan to enjoy the spectacular beaches of Wellfleet. We were a lucky family.

On the night of July 22nd ,1954 my parents went off to a play in Provincetown-Della, our babysitter was to let in the "gas man" who was to deliver two new tanks of propane. The pilot light on the stove was out. The tanks were delivered (the man let in by Della), and the pilot light on the stove now worked. My sister, Anne, and I had our beloved macaroni and cheese and Della read us "The Merbaby," our favorite story and put us to bed. Late that night my parents came home after going to dinner, a play and then to a friend's house.  My mother wanted to wash her face with warm water but the faucet ran only cold water. Determined to wash her face, she decided to go down to the "pit" where the hot water heater was housed. My father held the flashlight. My mother, match in hand, found the valve. There was no smell-so she lit the match. A flash fire horribly burned both of them, particularly my mother's face and hands. They ran up the ladder, rolled out the flames and a neighbor and Della heard their screams. They were then taken to the hospital in Hyannis Port.  My sister and I went to live on a farm in upstate New York with our Aunt, Uncle and cousins and I didn't see my parents again for nine months. They were terribly disfigured and my father, especially, was "changed" in the way that people are changed when they come back from war.

Flash forward thirty-eight years-1996. My parents have survived wonderfully. Both went back to work and had sterling careers. They have retired and moved from New York City to Oakland, California, across the Bay from where I live in San Francisco. I am the same age as my mother was when she was burned. And through a synchronicity only fate could design, my daughters are four and six, even born in the same months as Anne and me.

During that time, I suffered terribly from an "anniversary reaction" as I now know it is called. I had severe panic attacks-heart racing, hands sweating, a feeling of disconnection to my own body and to the world. I would pass by mirrors and not quite see myself in them; I saw walls of fire as I drove to my teaching job at College of San Mateo. Sometimes I woke up feeling like I had to throw up. I felt possessed. I had two young children. I didn't know what was going on. "It's an anniversary reaction," the therapist said. Then I understood-I was reliving the terror-and believed it would get me, too-that I would be burned and be separated from my own children, just like what my mother had been through.

Now it is 2009. Through self-hypnosis, exercise, tremendous love from family and friends and years of therapy I have few if any panic attacks. Sometimes the old terror rears its head in elevators-but I drive easily across bridges that used to set off my worst fears. Though I had been in therapy for many years before the panic attacks, had I known the relentless nature of an "anniversary reaction" I might have been able to prevent, or at least be more prepared to deal with the severity of the attacks. My panic attacks have now faded like the footprints on the sand in Wellfleet. Yet I know how important it is for everyone to understand how a childhood trauma can haunt any of us-and that we all need to understand the strength of the "anniversary reaction."

To the readers: If you or someone you know has experienced personal trauma in response to September 11th, perhaps send this to them to help normalize their experience and take the stress away that there is something deeply wrong with them. This can help immensely.

We can also remember that September 11th brought out the best in Americans and many around the world. It is a story of courage, connection and love in this nations history.

As always please share your thoughts about this article, personal stories, and questions. Your interactions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

 

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

It is interesting how we remember. - Janet Singer (www.ocdtalk.wordpress.com) - Sep 10th 2011

 Thanks you for sharing this. I know first-hand about "anniversary reactions." I lost my six week old daughter over twenty three years ago, and every year, I feel depressed and "out of sorts" during those six weeks of her life and death. The amazing thing to me is how the brain and body remember. It's not as if I look at the calendar, realize the date, and then feel depressed. It is in my being, and those feelings of sadness overwhelm me, and then I  realize the date and remember why I am feeling this way.

On another note, my heart goes out to all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. We mourn together and will never forget.

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