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Do Past Experiences Imprint on Our Lives?


Has this ever happened to you….you find yourself in a downcast mood or funk? You can’t quite figure out the issue so you push ahead only to then realize the date. This week is six years since I discovered her affair…it’s exactly eight years since he walked out the door…at this time last year everything changed.

You may not consciously remember or track the date of negative events like you would for a birthday or anniversary, but still it finds you. All of us have times in our lives that have changed us. They rock us to the core and they have the ability to instantly change the course of our future. A death, divorce or a betrayal can alter who we are and how we look at the world. Even when we move on and heal, the impact remains. You cannot gain back an innocence lost or return a cover that’s been pulled.

While it’s easy to accept that significant moments have the ability to change us, can they imprint in a way that we are not even consciously aware of? Do they have the ability to attach in a way that influences our emotions or behaviors when we least expect it?

An emotional reaction to a specific date or time period is referred to as an ‘Anniversary Reaction’. This reaction is a re-experience of a prior incident or trauma, and is the result of unresolved feelings or grief. This reaction may last only a few days, or it might continue for weeks. Sometimes the trigger is a particular date, but it could also be a season or event. For example, a man may find himself afraid or anxious when turning the age his own father was when he died. While many times these dates and reactions are anticipated, like when coming up on the first anniversary of your spouse’s death, other times they seem to appear without warning.

Trauma or grief when left unresolved has the ability to resurface at will. Even outside of specific anniversaries or timelines, joyful events in our lives can turn into an incident of pain. For example, a wedding may cue unresolved feelings from a bitter divorce, or the news of a friend’s promotion can bring up feelings of inadequacy. While these types of reactions are unwanted, they do lend us the opportunity for emotional healing. They give us a window into the unresolved areas of our lives.

It can initially appear that it is easier to go through your days ignoring a past trauma, but it’s not possible to ignore these areas forever. Our mind’s ability to store and catalog events gives us the amazing ability to recall joyous times but it also allows for pain and hurt to resurface.

When time has passed after a trauma, in some ways it’s easier to make excuses for feelings or behaviors that arise. Instead of addressing the root issue, your emotions are spent on other, less significant annoyances. For example, repeatedly fighting with your ex-spouse over minor schedule changes instead of working through anger left from your divorce. Or picking a small argument with your sibling that spirals our of control when the core issue runs much deeper.

We choose these smaller battles for a couple of reasons:

First, they are easier to handle. It’s much easier to discuss your disappointment that your spouse was late to an event instead of diving into lingering feelings from a break in trust two years back. “You are never on time! You always make me a lower priority!”

Second, we choose the arguments that we think we can win. When upset with your mother, you avoid discussing your pain from what you view as years of emotional neglect for fear that your feelings will be cast aside or diminished. Instead, it’s more productive to bring up incidents that are clear cut in your favor. “You changed dinner plans at the last minute without even asking me! You never think about my schedule!”

And lastly, we ignore lingering feelings that we view as unreasonable. For example, you feel that if you bring up your pain from a years-old divorce that it will cast you in a bad light. You don’t want people thinking that you still have feelings for your ex or that you are unreasonably stuck on the past. It’s easier to argue about what you feel are the latest issues even though they are not the true cause of your pain. “You’re missing another chorus concert! You never think about anyone but yourself!”

Continuing to push away pent up feelings, for whatever reason, allows for Anniversary Reactions to occur. Some of these reactions are expected and should be viewed as absolutely normal, but if you feel that you are struggling or the pain continues on much longer than you’d expect, it may be time to invest in yourself. Finding a qualified counselor who can help you work through your past trauma or lingering emotions can give you freedom in your future. Finding a way to gain peace from your past is the best way to move happily into the future.


Stein DJ, Rauch SL. (2010). “Neuropsychiatric Aspects of Anxiety Disorders” in Essentials of Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences. Eds. SC Yudofsky, RE Hales. Virginia: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Do Past Experiences Imprint on Our Lives?

Amy Bellows, PhD

Amy Bellows holds a PhD in Psychology and has had the opportunity to work in various settings including leading adolescent group therapy sessions, working with victims of sexual assault, helping woman inmates adjust to post-prison life, conducting parenting education classes and assisting with drug and alcohol dependency treatment plans. The unique challenges and opportunities that come along with being a part of a step-family is a special interest of hers. Amy is currently working in the corporate environment with a interest in group dynamics and change management. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @AmyBellowsPhD.

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APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2016). Do Past Experiences Imprint on Our Lives?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Feb 2016
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