Birthdays are a time for people to reflect on achievements and failures regarding life goals they connect to a specific age. For many people, birthdays are a time of sadness or depression because of past negative experiences, family dramas, a fear of getting old, or somehow not accomplishing the goals they wanted to achieve. Fortunately, there are ways to alleviate the birthday blues.
What Are the Birthday Blues?
Culturally, and in large part due to social media, birthdays are seen as a time when everyone should celebrate. For some people, however, these images and ideals only intensify sadness and feelings of isolation. They may experience a cluster of symptoms including depression, apathy, or anxiety. As we age, feeling depressed about an approaching birthday is common; however, having the birthday blues is different from depression and its accompanying symptoms.1
There may be birthday related sadness shortly before the birthday or shortly after, but it is important to distinguish depression versus sadness. Many people feel sad on their birthdays but are not considered depressed. Depression is a damaging mental health condition, while sadness is a natural part of life just like joy or happiness.
Symptoms of birthday blues might include:
- Being tired and unenthusiastic in the days approaching your birthday
- Sadness you can’t seem to shake off
- Anxiety that things won’t go as you hoped
- Mild paranoia or anxiety beforehand and on the day
- Mild paranoia or anxiety beforehand and on the day
- Low self-confidence and self-esteem
- Desire to be isolated
- Ruminating about past decisions
- Heightened and fragile emotions around and on the day
- Frequent crying related to feelings about the day
- Some people may have suicidal ideation
- Disappointment because things didn’t go as expected
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating
- Fear about aging and mortality
Why Am I Sad On my Birthday?
Significant life events can trigger emotions like stress, anxiety, or sadness. Birthdays also cause people to reflect on self expectations. Our culture sends messages saying birthdays are a time to celebrate, so it’s not surprising that people question the reasons they’re not having these feelings.
Here are potential causes for birthday depression:
- Fear of getting old. This is especially true for milestone birthdays like 50, 60, and 70 when people begin to think about their mortality. As people age, they may experience new medical or cognitive changes that impact their ability to function. They may also notice changes in vision or hearing. This can create feelings of anxiety, fear, or sadness.
- There may be a history of drama or negative events that occurred during your childhood birthdays. Birthdays evoke memories about how past birthdays were celebrated. Reliving these childhood traumas and memories can cause sadness, anger, depression, or anxiety.
- Not meeting pressures of culturally imposed milestones. Examples of these milestones include getting married, having children, or having a “successful” career. If you do not meet these milestones, it can cause self-criticism.
- Fear of experiencing ageism as you get older. Ageism includes when younger generations see older people as different from themselves, subtly ceasing to identify with them at all.(2) Fears of dependence/independence issues may begin to arise. Also questions about how you will age become more relevant.
- Fear of change. Even though we can’t stop getting older, we sometimes have a fear of change. We’re naturally prone to worry about things that represent uncertainty, push us out of our comfort zone, and/or are beyond our scope of control.
- Mid-life crisis. In addition to potentially causing the birthday blues, a mid-life crisis can make you question your identity and priorities. Though many people think of this as primarily as male issue, a woman’s midlife crisis is just as real, albeit less discussed.
- Isolation. Not having any friends or family to share your birthday with can feel devastating. Isolation and loneliness evokes feelings of sadness and grief. Low self-esteem can become an issue in these instances.
- Unrealistic or unmet expectations. As birthdays approach, especially milestone birthdays, you may have specific expectations. If these expectations are not met, there can be feelings of anger, sadness, and disappointment.
8 Ways to Cope With Birthday Blues
Managing birthday sadness begins with self-awareness. If you can recognize when there is a sense of unease about an upcoming birthday, you can take self-care actions to make your birthday experience better.
Here are eight strategies you can incorporate to help alleviate birthday blues:
1. Give yourself permission to experience any emotions that come up in relation to your birthday.
You need to do this without any self-judgment or criticism. There are a lot of feelings, memories, and expectations connected to birthdays; tell yourself you are not wrong to feel them. This approach can help alleviate stress and inhibit self-recrimination.
2. Identify what is causing you to be anxious/sad/depressed about your birthday.
Is it not having family there? Is it not knowing where to go or how to manage the details? Once you have a good understanding of this, develop an action plan. If family can’t attend in-person, plan a facetime or Zoom call. If you know someone who is a good planner, ask them to help with the details or recommend a place to go. Understanding the source of feelings can help to modulate their intensity.
3. Reframe your thinking.
Rather than ruminating about things that didn’t go as planned, ask yourself different questions. What challenges did I meet and successfully overcome? What life lesson did you learn this past year? Did you meet new people or build on existing relationships? What new things did you learn about yourself that made you feel good? The answers may reveal achievements you had taken for granted.
4. Incorporate positive thinking about aging.
Embrace positive aging by looking at how getting older can be a rewarding time. Acknowledge that aging is normal. Embrace change. Care for the physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual, and social needs as you age.
5. Celebrate your birthday in a way that makes you comfortable.
If you don’t like being the center of attention, don’t have a big birthday celebration. Who are the people you are most comfortable with? Surround yourself with those people. If you want to be at home, then order take-out. If you love movies, take yourself to a movie. Spend the day pampering yourself with self-care activities. If you take control of your birthday in a way that makes you feel good, it will elevate your mood and reduce stress.
6. Plan ahead.
Don’t wait until your birthday to decide what to do, especially if you want to invite people to share it with. Give them an invitation with plenty of notice. If you don’t know where to go, pick a favorite restaurant and make a reservation. If you don’t know what to do, watch the local news or newspapers about upcoming events like concerts and get tickets. Allow yourself time to plan ahead so on the day of your birthday you know what you will be doing and who you’ll be with.
7. Make your birthday a fun and special time for yourself.
Ask yourself what brings you joy. Treat yourself to something special that you know will make you feel good. The act of creating a day of activities that have special meaning will help you feel good about yourself and promote feelings of self-worth and self-compassion.
8. Practice self-compassion.
Show yourself compassion and understanding regardless of how you feel or how your day goes. Do not engage in self-criticism. If you find your thoughts moving that way, practice redirection and reframe your thinking on qualities that will make you feel good about who you are.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you find that the symptoms of birthday depression (irritability, low energy, sadness, hopelessness, inability to concentrate, self-harm ideation) remain for more than two weeks, or you’re experiencing smiling depression, seek help from a mental health professional. A therapist can help you discover the underlying reasons for your depression. They can treat your depression, help you explore the source, and identify triggers.
You can find a therapist through your doctor, a local mental health center, or in an online therapist directory. Make sure you understand what your insurance covers in terms of therapist credentials.
Birthday blues aren’t unusual, but people feel confused when it happens because they associate birthdays with celebration and happiness. To ensure that your birthday is a positive experience, adjust your expectations, identify exactly what you want, and plan ahead. If symptoms of sadness and birthday depression continue beyond your birthday, help is available from a mental health professional.