A Therapist’s Advice for Processing the Pandemic Anniversary

How to give yourself space to work through your grief

Blurred image of people walking at a crosswalk in a city.

The topic of “The Anniversary” started showing up in my therapy sessions sometime in late January or early February. Over the past few weeks, it’s become an increasingly popular topic among my clients, many of whom have given voice to feelings I myself struggled to put into words.

Some therapists have described the Covid-19 pandemic as an experience of collective trauma. Others have carefully delineated the difference between a collective stressor, and collective trauma — though they note that certainly some have experienced traumatic stress (loss of loved ones, loss of employment, or the trauma experienced by health care workers on the frontlines) as a result of the pandemic. But whatever your pandemic experience has been, it’s probably been strange, intense, and difficult to process — and as we approach the year benchmark, those feelings are likely especially potent.

The psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, author of How to Be Yourself, has described an “anniversary reaction” as the “echo of trauma or loss.” Research has shown that symptoms of an “anniversary reaction” can include increases in depression, anxiety, and panic; irritability; poor sleep; and even physical symptoms like cardiac events, increased inflammation, and pain.

Typically, our anniversary reactions are unique to our own trauma histories. However, the difference this March is that the pandemic has been a collective experience as well as an individual one.

Here’s what we can do to prepare for this anniversary, together:

Acknowledge collective grief

To me, one of the most bizarre aspects of this year has been the relative lack of memorialization of Americans’ collective grief. Save for a few splashy displays, like the New York Times printing the names of the first 100,000 lives lost to Covid-19, the flags on the National Mall, or a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy running the names of Covid-19 victims instead of their usual credits, there has been precious little in the way of public acknowledgment of our shared state of mourning.

And yet, interacting with grief is central to how we process it — something that other survivors of collective trauma know all too well. In a culture that values strength, positivity, independence, and pulling yourself up by your supposed bootstraps, we’re not taught how to share our more difficult, painful, unwieldy feelings. But when we tend and befriend — a stress response that pushes us to bond with those around us — we help one another soothe our nervous systems, regulating back into groundedness and calm.

What would it look like to hold space for each other as the one-year anniversary of the shutdown looms? If talking seems out of reach, what if you met a friend on Zoom and wrote or drew or simply ate lunch in silence together? What if you set aside time to do nothing other than reflect, on your own or with others, about how much this event has changed all our lives? To walk in the chill, together, remembering what was before, imagining what might come after?

Savor the moments of being okay

As the pleasure activist adrienne maree brown recently wrote on her blog, “if you’re good, say you’re good.” She noted that lately, when she asked people how they were doing, many have answered by sheepishly admitting that that they were doing pretty okay, despite everything.

But being okay isn’t something you need to couch in a layer of sheepishness. It’s important to make room for acknowledging all the ways we’re keeping it together. This isn’t the same as demanding toxic positivity, or hiding our more painful emotions behind a rictus grin to keep others comfortable at our own expense. But brown points out that it’s okay, and even necessary, to honor the work that we are doing to keep ourselves going.

That can also mean savoring moments of joy as they come, and doing so without guilt or reservation. I think of a recent moment when I was walking my dog past a stretch of houses with wind chimes hanging outside. Suddenly, they all seemed to be singing, eerie and otherworldly in the cold. I remembered some long-ago science lesson about what happens in the air when sound waves bump into each other, amplifying sound, making it crisper, cleaner, all encompassing. Maybe it wasn’t joy, but it was something close: a moment of much-needed awe.

Do something good for someone else

Part of my therapy practice is rooted in helping clients turn insight into some kind of tangible action: the process of proving to ourselves that we are able to exert some kind of influence on our otherwise overwhelming world.

I’ve written before about how exercising agency helps us resolve our bodies’ stress response cycle. And right now, with so many people and communities in need, there’s no shortage of ways to feel like you’re doing something that matters. From a stress-response perspective, getting involved in mutual aid, or simply helping out an elderly neighbor with grocery shopping or a friend with childcare, also offers a secondary benefit. Those things are relational. They give us a task, a purpose, and in doing so, allow us to be in community — tending and befriending — and seeing in real time the ways in which we still have agency, even in the thick of crisis.

Christina Tesoro is a New York City-based writer, sex educator, and therapist.

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