It’s a week out from my birthday, and I know I should be excited, but in truth I feel nothing but dread. I’ve got a few friends with birthdays around the same time, and I’m excited to celebrate them in a fun environment and acknowledge their awesome existence. But when it comes to celebrating my own birthday? I’m terrible at it, and tend to want to avoid it altogether. The funny thing is, this avoidance feels great in the lead-up to my birthday. I spend all week saying ‘no it’s okay, it’s not important’, to offers from friends and family to go out for a drink together. I tell my partner ‘I don’t want or need anything, please don’t do anything special’, not wanting to draw attention to myself.
And yet, when I inevitably wake up on that fateful morning, I end up finding myself feeling sad, lonely, abandoned and unimportant. I feel frustrated or disappointed with people for not making me feel important or special, despite having pushed away their very recent efforts to do so. I get stuck in the cycle of my own self-fulfilling prophecy of disappointment. The same avoidance that gave me relief the week before my birthday, becomes my torture when the day finally rolls around. So for the last few years, I’ve been working on drafting up a plan to remedy the birthday blues, and each year the blueprint becomes a little clearer. Each year becomes a little bit easier. If you also experience the birthday blues, know that you’re not alone, and that there are some things you can do to make this time of year a little easier.
‘Birthday Blues’ or Birthday Depression: What is it?
Although not currently recognized as a diagnosable mental illness, birthday depression is not uncommon and has been associated with similar symptoms to anxiety and depression. These symptoms include but are not limited to; feeling sad or down, unmotivated, apathetic, nervous, irritable, experiences of increased rumination or worry, negative self-talk, avoidance of thoughts about day or age, and isolating yourself from people that might ask about your birthday. The symptoms will tend to intensify immediately prior, and post your day of birth. Fortunately, these symptoms usually are short-lived and will subside soon after a birthday period.
So WHY do I feel so down around this time of year?
There are many possible reasons why someone might experience the birthday blues. Firstly, and commonly, is a fear of aging or getting older. This tends to be more pronounced around culturally denoted ‘milestone’ birthdays such as 30 or 50. Sometimes fear of aging is also coupled with a fear of death, which often intensifies when our age is brought into the spotlight of our attention. Fear of dying can be indicative of underlying mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression, or can also suggest feelings of dissatisfaction with how we are living life right now. Indeed, birthdays often prompt us to consider the passing of time, and subsequently what we have achieved over the last year. This can lead to disappointment or frustration as we consider unrealized hopes and goals, or perceived lack of accomplishments. This might be particularly true, if you are someone that tends to holds yourself to particularly high standards and expectations.
And of course, along with expectations of how our year ‘should’ have gone, often come expectations of how our birthday ‘should’ be celebrated. Holding high expectations for natal celebrations is not necessarily a bad thing, however we may set ourselves up for failure if comparing ourselves to social media representations of effortlessly organized yet flamboyant birthday parties. Sometimes when planning for our birthday, it can all feel too much, and many will opt for outright avoidance. While for some it may be helpful to lay low, for others it can mean a day spent alone feeling sad about no one showing up for the birthday gathering or catch-up that was never organized. Feelings of loneliness can often be responsible for the birthday blues, whether due to unrealized plans, physical separation from loved ones, or having lost touch with friendships. When there is pressure on receiving birthday messages, it can hurt all the more when our phone remains silent on the day.
Finally, though by no means the last possible cause of birthday depression, is how you might have experienced your birthday in the past. Many people may have trauma surrounding their birthdays, or remember sad or difficult times occurring around this time. If this is the case, sometimes the same feelings of sadness or distress can reemerge with the memory reminder of date and time. Some may even find it hard to allow themselves to be the centre of attention, or feel worthy of celebrating, which can be linked to low self-esteem or other confidence difficulties. Whatever it is, we want you to know there are ways to work through these difficulties.
How to help yourself through the birthday blues
First things first – consider setting up a safe space for yourself to journal and reflect on why you think you may be feeling sad or down. Perhaps it’s due to one or several of the reasons mentioned above, or perhaps it’s due to something entirely different. It may be hard to figure out why you might be feeling sad, and it’s okay if you’re still not quite sure after some reflection. Talking to a trusted support person can help to explore your thoughts and feelings around this difficult time.
If you are able to identify some of the causes of your sadness, allow yourself time to feel your feelings. Despite what social media may have us believe, it is normal and okay to feel a range of things on our birthdays, from sadness, to anger, to fear, to excitement. Grieve, cry, whatever you need. Once you’ve had some time and space to process, try to get out and do something soothing and nourishing for your body and mind – take a walk, watch a favorite TV show or pat your dog. And then, you might be ready to consider what you could do to support yourself through your grievances.
- Gratitude and Self-Compassion
Just as reflecting on reasons for sadness is important, it’s equally important to take time to reflect on things we might be grateful for, things that might have gone well for us over the last year, or even things that didn’t go so well that we were able to learn valuable lessons from. You might like to journal, or speak to a friend about some of the things you are proud of yourself for during your 19th, 29th or 79th year of living.
‘But Beth, I don’t have ANYTHING to be proud of!’, you might say? To that, I reply respectfully, that even reading this blog is an act of self-exploration, compassion and kindness that you deserve to be proud of. If gratitude or other positive reflections feel like too much of a big step for now, you can start by simply acknowledging your ability to have gotten through many ups and downs already. Be gentle with yourself, especially if birthdays tend to be emotionally charged for you. Just getting through is admirable, too.
- Celebrate, or don’t, but YOU get to choose
Give yourself permission to be just a little selfish for once! This means trying to release any unhelpful expectations around what you think you ‘should’ be doing, or what Instagram tells us birthdays will look like. Instead, try to plan something for yourself that is both a) within your capacity and resources, and 2) will help you feel most settled. If you find planning stressful, fear rejection if people don’t come to your event, or too much pressure associated with the day, try to keep your arrangements simple, small and intimate (and you can always have a party later on by another name, once the birthday blues have dissipated)!
Importantly, if you do want to celebrate or be celebrated, however that looks, speak up! Fortunately or unfortunately, no matter how close we are with our friends and families, they cannot read our minds. Expecting our loved ones to show up for us on our birthdays without any prior warning, reminders or suggestions is a recipe for disappointment. It can be hard voicing what you want if you tend to be a chronic people-pleaser, but it also can be empowering – and remember that usually people usually really appreciate the help! This is just one day of the year, and a good practice for all the other days of the year, for asserting our wants and needs.
4. Don’t be afraid to seek help
If your birthday blues are happening every year, sticking around a little longer after your birthday than usual, or if your low feelings are becoming overwhelming, it’s worth reaching out for some additional support. We recommend speaking to a good friend, an understanding family member, your GP or a mental health professional if any of this feels relevant to you. Help is available and things can get better!
This year, although not perfect (and nor should we ever expect ourselves to be), I did some different kinds of birthday preparations. I thought about what would make ME feel safe and calm, rather than fall trap to the pressure and stress of finding the perfect 30th birthday venue. Though perhaps not a traditional way of celebrating such a ‘milestone’ birthday; a casual lunch with family, a dinner out with my partner, a tidy up of our lounge-room and some fresh bedsheets at home turned into one of my best birthdays yet.
The emotions still came, but they were not forced away – instead I felt I had space to ride the waves and still enjoy myself when the tides calmed down. For the first time, and it takes practice, I was able to remind myself that these waves of emotion did not dictate how my day or my year were going to go. They did not dictate who I was or what I achieved over the past year of my life. Instead they were part of my experience, the whole bigger picture of practicing honoring my own needs a little more. We won’t always get it right, and it will look different for each of us, but that’s okay. It’s a practice which, although may be emphasized on our birthdays, is one we can hope to carry on throughout each day following right up until the next natal day celebrations.
If you experience similar confusing feelings around other big cultural or festive events, you might also like to read our blog on managing festive season expectations.
Click here for some more tips on how to beat the birthday blues.