A Year Later, The Body Remembers
Managing COVID-19 Trauma Anniversary Reactions
I spent the first few days of March 2020 in Manhattan at a grant meeting. I came across photos from that trip last night and was jolted by seeing packed streets and full faces — so many noses and mouths.
My throat started to close up. My chest felt tight. My thoughts raced and I began, inexplicably, to tear up. I met those sensations with curiosity and realized: my body had marked the anniversary and was making sure I knew.
Trauma anniversary reactions are annual reminders of trauma or sudden loss that occurred. If the traumatic experience is ongoing, like with COVID-19, the anniversary often marks the point at which the experience began. These reactions are largely unconscious. In many cases, you may not put two and two together until you see a calendar. But they are very real and can be very distressing.
The ‘why’ behind trauma anniversary reactions is tricky, as it relates to the complex way traumatic memories are stored in the brain. The brain is organized hierarchically: the bottom parts (for our purposes, the brainstem, and midbrain) develop first and are responsible for more basic functions like breathing and blood flow, while the top parts develop later and are responsible for more sophisticated functions like planning and problem-solving.
During times of stress or threat, the brain rapidly and efficiently prioritizes survival, sending all energy to the bottom parts of the brain to keep us alive. When this stress response is activated, when the brainstem is running the show, a very important part of the midbrain changes its role. The hippocampus is responsible for managing the brain’s filing cabinet; it stores and retrieves memories and gives them a ‘date stamp.’ But, when our stress alarm is ringing, the hippocampus becomes involved in the release of cortisol and loses its ability to give that date stamp. What this means is that, during a traumatic event, memories will be coded and stored in rich, sensory detail — — but, again, without a date stamp. So, when triggered by any sensory information or even by a time of year, the brain responds as if the experience is happening right now… and the body follows suit.