The first time it happened was in the stillness of our living room past midnight, where the only sound was the soft click of bamboo knitting needles as they created cotton loop after soft cotton loop. I was up late knitting a tooth fairy pillow, trying to finish it before my kindergartner’s wobbly tooth fell out. I suddenly caught my breath. She was there. Not a ghost, but someone I felt. My friend. My friend from the knitting group that for years had met at a bar for laughter and crafting community. My friend who had died of a galloping colon cancer much too young.
Not until the next day, when I saw photos shared on social media of the knitted buttons some of us had worn to her memorial service, did my rational brain catch up and put the dates together. My body had remembered the day she died before I did.
Is There a Traumaversary Recorded in Your Cells?
It was not the only time my body was paying closer attention to the calendar than my mind. Perhaps it has happened to you, too.
It could be a day like any other, but something feels … off. Until we look at the calendar and realize exactly one month or one year or five years has passed from a day our life changed. An anniversary. But not a happy one. Call it a “traumaversary.”
Thanks to the work of Bessel van der Kolk and other neurological researchers, we now understand that our bodies keep a record of experience in their very cells. That night of my midnight knitting visitation, I had not yet read van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. Now that I have, it seems like all of my adult life has been one long journey of learning how to listen to and trust what my body is trying to say.
What to Ask Your Body as a Traumaversary Nears
Earlier this fall, my local community braced itself for the first anniversary of an urban wildfire that consumed more than 2,600 homes and traumatized tens of thousands more valley residents due to evacuation and other kinds of loss. As the fateful date approached again, neurological memory started making itself known beneath the stress and strain of 20 months of pandemic in people all around.
We cannot predict how the anniversary of a traumatic event might show up in our bodies. I have learned what might be the most important question to ask as these traumaversaries approach: What does my body most need today?
Your body may need you to cancel something. It may need you to call someone. It may need a way to get the energy out—maybe by singing, or crying, or dancing, or talking. Your body may need a cozy blanket and some tea. May need to drive away from home. To sleep all day. To play a hilarious game with family or friends.
[Read: “Let Your Body Lead You Through Grief.”]
Your body is likely to need one thing this afternoon, and maybe a different thing tonight. It might need one thing tomorrow morning, and the opposite thing tomorrow afternoon. At least once or twice throughout each of the days leading up to the traumaversary, gently ask your body: What do you most need right now? And then trust its wisdom. I am confident your body can lead you in love.
Body Scan Meditations
Not sure how to tell what your body is saying? I recommend trying several different body scan meditations until you find one that works for you. A body scan meditation is a way to check in with various parts of the body to observe and notice what’s going on from a place of total non-judgment.
An abbreviated version might go like this:
- Begin with several deep breaths.
- Notice your feet and how they touch the floor or the feel of the chair or couch as it supports or holds you.
- Breathing along the way, move your awareness to your ankles. Then your shins. Now calves. Knees. Upper thighs.
- Breathe. What do you notice?
- Is there any “optional tension,” as my therapist likes to say?
- Move your awareness on to your hips, abdomen, chest, back, shoulders, and arms. (But more slowly and gently than the time it takes to read those words.)
- Where are you holding?
- Where is your body relaxed?
- Moving your awareness to the neck, can you release your jaw?
- Notice how it feels behind your eyes.
- Now your head.
- What do you observe in your body?
Some body scan exercises are very simple, like this video created by Stop, Breathe, Think. Some are more involved, like this longer 30-minute version by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Whether you do one of these or one on your own, you will surely be more in tune with your body by the time you finish scanning. Noisy thoughts, rationalizations, denials, and excuses are less in the way, allowing you to hold your body in compassion.
What Will Your Body Tell You?
Whether your body most needs comfort, connection, expression, or escape on any particular traumaversary, please know it is perfectly normal. Each body has its own journey of healing. Even when many have survived the same life-altering disaster event.
We cannot predict how the anniversary of a traumatic event might show up in our bodies. But we can trust these bodies of ours with the traumaversary.
Is trauma stuck inside your body? Dr. James S. Gordon shares a technique to shake it loose.