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COVID And The 'Anniversary Effect': How Remembrance Can Increase Stress

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Melissa Briski
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COVID-19 nurse Melissa Briski's mom tries to give people their favorite Christmas present every year. But in 2020, getting vaccinated was the best gift Briski got.

First, it was a whisper. Hospitals started screening patients to see if they'd been overseas because a new virus had been found in China. Shortly after, confirmed cases were in the United States. Doctors who'd worked with contagious diseases in other countries started regularly wearing N-95 masks, which would soon be in short supply. Within a few weeks, hospitals started combining ICU units to make room for COVID 19-patients.

That's when cardiac nurse Melissa Briski says the reality of the situation kicked in.

"I had a specific conversation within those first two weeks with my parents where my dad asked me, 'Do you think this is really going to be a big deal?' And by that point, there was no doubt in my mind that this was absolutely real, it was absolutely going to impact everyone in the country, it was absolutely going to kill a lot of people," she said.

When Atrium Medical Center in Middletown asked for volunteers to work with COVID patients, Briski stepped up.

At 38-years-old, she's not high risk and her only roommate is a cat named after Madeleine Dreyfus. Her Christian faith, she says, gave her a sense of duty to care for others. Some of the first hospitals in history were started by nuns and she wanted to follow in the same vein. 

And, lastly, she's a member of the LGBTQ+ community, which was left wrecked by the HIV/AIDS pandemic for years after the virus was discovered. 

"During that crisis, there were a lot of doctors and nurses who simply weren't willing to care for that patient population," Briski said. "I have a lot of sadness and anger for how we as a health care community failed HIV/AIDS patients. And I knew that with this particular epidemic, I would not be sitting on the sidelines."

In Ohio, more than 17,500 people have died of the virus, while Briski's worked on the frontline saving lives. She remembers one patient in particular, a man who was not going to survive much longer. She knew she had to give his family a chance to virtually say goodbye and he'd likely be alone when he died.

"I found myself putting off going into that room — finishing up one more thing for another patient, finishing up one more piece of charting, and putting off taking the iPad into the room," she recalled. "And, eventually, I realized I was waiting for the grown-up to show up. And there was no one coming. It was just me." 

It's been a privilege, she says, to work with COVID-19 patients, ensuring they have good care and dignity while they try to recover. But the work took a toll on her. She started losing weight, her hair thinned, and she lost sleep.

She was able to eventually turn a corner, though, keeping up with friends and spending a few summer holidays on her parents' patio at her own socially distanced table.

On the Fourth of July, she thought, " 'Christmas is going to be pretty cold on the patio.' So I definitely knew, even then ... looking at the medical research, that the only way we were going to get out of this was a vaccine."

And she knows how long it takes for new vaccines to be developed.

The Anniversary Effect

Briski settled in for the long haul. She invested in a warm winter coat so she could go on long walks, bought plants, baked bread, and took photos of snow-covered parks and animal tracks. 

Like everyone else, she forced herself to adapt to the new reality of living among COVID-19. But the situation people are finding themselves in — wearing masks, staying socially distanced, living during a pandemic — is not normal.

Jennifer Brown, University of Cincinnati associate professor of psychology and psychiatry, says our bodies remember the trauma of the past year. It's called the anniversary effect.

"For some, it's sort of a remembrance, and not much more beyond that," she said. "For others, it can really be associated with increased emotional distress, or anxiety or depression." 

The effect can hit people two-fold: the mass events people experience as communities, like when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed; or more personal experiences, like the loss of a loved one or a job. That means COVID-19 can be a double whammy for a lot of people who've experienced trauma on several levels.

"Our brains and our biology don't work in isolation of our environment and our behaviors and our thoughts," Brown said.

She says the effect can cause issues people might recognize right away, like increased sadness or depression. But less obvious symptoms include tiredness, sleeplessness, increased feelings of stress, and a lack of motivation.

And she says you don't have to be a frontline worker like Briski to feel it.

For instance, Catherine Adams is a senior at Westerville North High School. Until recently, she was out of the classroom for a year and she's exhausted.

"I've been feeling particularly unmotivated. It is just a lot to take in," she said. "And you know, after a year of kind of repeating the same day, every single day, I do not feel great." 

But she knows social distancing is necessary and she's happy to forgo traditional rites of passage for students if it means saving lives. Adams is not complaining, but recognizes there's some things she'll never experience because of COVID-19.

"I don't think I'm going to have a prom. I didn't get a prom last year either because of Corona. So I will have never had a prom," she said.

And she's missing doing some of the in-person climate activism events she helped with before the pandemic — it's mostly online now.

"I do wish that I was able to have the normal experience with my classmates ... And so I just think I was looking forward to being able to see my friends and talk to my friends and experience high school one last time with them," she said.

But she's trying to take it one day at a time and hoping for the best.

Adams went back to school earlier this week and she hopes that's a sign high school graduation will also be in-person. But according to the school's website, that'll depend on COVID-19 regulations, which are constantly in flux. 

"It's not healthy for people to be living like this," she said. "So I think it's important to make sure you're taking care of yourself and giving yourself time to process, maybe grieve. And just be gentle with yourself during this time because it's not easy for any of us."