This piece was originally published in Psychology Today's To Heal and Carry On on August 29, 2016.
I’ll never forget where I was on this day 11 years ago.
My family and I had moved to South Mississippi the same week Hurricane Katrina struck.
I didn’t realize the storm was truly headed our way until the Sunday morning before the storm hit. After learning we were in harms way we went to a large store to get some supplies to help us ride it out. Apparently we weren't the only ones with this idea. Many of the store’s shelves were already picked over.
We quickly realized we weren’t prepared—that the storm was going to be worse than most people thought—and decided to evacuate.
Before leaving on that Sunday afternoon my wife and I quickly scrambled around our home trying to secure it as best as we could. We managed to grab some keepsakes, necessities, important papers, and crammed them into our little gray family car. As we drove away from our home we started calling friends from college. After several hours driving north on Interstate 59 we finally got a hold of our friends Ryan and Kristen. They invited us to stay at their home with them in Nashville, Tennessee.
On this exact day eleven years ago I was displaced with my family in Nashville at our friends’ house. I was glued to the television by anxiety and fear as I watched reports of the worse natural disaster to ever hit the United States unfold.
After several weeks I was finally able to make it back to Mississippi. We were one of the fortunate ones. Our losses were minimal compared to most. I now live nearly 900 miles away from where we use to call home in Mississippi. Over a decade has since passed. Still, this historic storm’s anniversary stirs something inside me every year around this time.
That sense of helpless I felt from not knowing how to prepare starts to creep back. Mental pictures forever burned into my memory of homes flattened by the wind or torpedoed by pine trees sneak their way into my thoughts. I find myself longing to see friends and colleagues I worked with during the recovery process.
Several studies have shown that traumatic anniversaries are difficult for a lot of people—mass and personal disasters alike. It’s common for anniversaries to trigger unwanted memories and emotional distress among those affected. Following are some steps you can take to help you cope with challenging anniversaries.
Seek social support
Study after study shows that social support is one of the biggest predictors of resilience after a trauma. Don’t be afraid to reach out to loved ones and friends for extra support around trying anniversaries. This doesn’t mean you have to rehash or relive the events all over again. Only share what you feel comfortable sharing. If you don’t want to talk about things, that’s okay. Just spending time and being with others can be healing in and of itself. You might also look to see if there are public gatherings or official ceremonies taking place. Expressions of public gatherings can be powerful and healing sources of memorial and remembrance. Engaging in community activities can help you remember that you are not alone.
Engage in the familiar
Troubling anniversaries can shake our sense of “normalcy” and make you feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster. Because anniversaries can disrupt your daily life, trying to keep a routine can be helpful. That is, try and create some space in your day or days surrounding the anniversary for the familiar. Carving out calm amidst what can feel like chaos can help buffer against the roller-coaster effect. Seeking out familiar places, schedules, and people can be soothing and comforting
Honor your story
Your story about you is important. We are hard wired for story. We even live in story. Journalist Michele Weldon notes, “We all lead lives worthy of preservation. Our stories need to be told, if to no one else, then only to ourselves…” You may feel tempted to try and avoid the difficult parts of your life story, such as traumatic anniversaries. However, I would encourage you to look for ways to remember and honor your whole story. It’s important to learn how to preserve you entire life experience, including the ups and the downs. There is not one “right” way to honor your story in its entirety. This is not something to be rushed and takes time. Be patient with yourself and the recovery process.
Limit media exposure
It’s okay to be informed and follow media stories around challenging anniversaries. Be aware too much media exposure can increase your distress. Seeing images that remind you of what happened over and over again can trigger strong negative emotional reactions if you aren’t careful. Maybe you have some unanswered questions lingering from what you went through and are hoping the news will help you fill in the gap. You are probably better off talking with a close friend or others close to what happened for accurate information over trying to find closure in the news. In addition to hopefully getting more information you’ll also be getting that ever so important social support.
Do something for someone else
Helping others is good for fostering resilience. Research has found assisting someone else in need is an effective way for finding meaning and purpose in your own struggle. Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren, a social psychologist at Hope College, notes that helping others fosters a sense of meaning, purpose, and even feelings of happiness. Similarly, Santa Clara University clinical psychologist Dr. Thomas Plante writes, "In a nutshell, if you want to cope better with stress, serve others. Stress management and resilience can be enhanced by connecting with others in need."
Find comfort in your beliefs
Seeking refuge in our beliefs can help you weather life’s storms. Several studies have found that faith can help provide a significant buffer against common negative psychological consequences following disasters and trauma. Deepening your connection with the sacred can help you find comfort and ease fears about living in a disaster-filled word. For example, in survey of nearly 200 Hurricane Katrina survivors, religious comfort was associated with positive outcomes while religious strain was associated with more negative outcomes.
Get professional help if needed
Here are a few signs you would benefit from additional professional support. You can’t shake the distressful thoughts and emotions brought back by the anniversary. The distress triggered by the anniversary start to interfere with your everyday life. If you notice others are encouraging to seek professional help, this too may be a good indicator you should seek help. Lastly, if you find yourself thinking about harming yourself or someone else then call a mental health professional or 9/11 right away. More resources on when and how to get help are available at apa.org, counseling.org, psychiatry.org, naswdc.org and aamft.org.
Jamie D. Aten is founder and director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference at Wheaton College. His latest books include, as co-author, the “Disaster Ministry Handbook” and, as co-editor, “Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma.” Follow him on Twitter at @drjamieaten or jamieaten.com. Subscribe here to get the latest from jamieaten.com via the Humanitarian Disaster Institute sent directly to your inbox.
Copyright Jamie Aten