I’ve had the birthday blues (basically, annual dread surrounding my birthday) since I was 5 years old. Every year as the date approaches, a panic builds slowly, typically a month out, and culminates in wishful, melancholic despair as the clock strikes midnight and I turn another year older. I contemplate who I am, what I want and what I am doing with my life. This year the birthday blues feel excruciatingly acute, due, in part, to the realization that I am now in my late 20s, feeling like I have nothing to show for it. That, and moving to New York from the sleepy South. Suddenly, everyone is someone and doing something. The year I spent in Alabama, figuring out what was important to me, has seemingly flown right out the window. I hate this feeling, but have never been sure of how to handle it, so I reached out to a couple therapists to discover what the birthday blues (sometimes called birthday depression or birthday anxiety) are and how to cope.
I’ve Had the Birthday Blues My Whole Life, So I Asked Therapists How to Handle It
Meet the Experts
- Naiylah Warren, licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), is a therapist and Clinical Content Manager at Real, a mental health services company that provides therapy and programs to help individuals handle life challenges, like anxiety, depression, relationships and body image.
- Smriti Joshi is the Chief Psychologist at Wysa, an AI-driven, emotionally-intelligent mental health platform that helps people build mental resilience skills through cognitive-behavioral techniques (CBT), Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), meditation, breathing, yoga and motivational interviewing.
What Is Birthday Depression and What Causes It?
Sometimes also referred to as birthday anxiety or the birthday blues, birthday depression isn’t a clinical disorder, but it is pretty common.
“It’s often used to describe a state of intense anxiety or sadness that an individual can experience around their birthday,” Joshi explains. “They can experience a low mood, a sense of apathy, worries, the resurfacing of difficult memories, difficulties in concentration, restlessness and low frustration tolerance. Some people also report experiencing somatic symptoms like aches and pains, reduced appetite and disturbed sleep.”
But why is that? Warren shares that society’s perspective on aging can compound the stress we feel. “Birthdays can trigger feelings of inadequacy if we haven’t met our personal or the societal expectations of this new age or phase of life,” she says. Marriage, purchasing a house and career and money goals are just a few examples of milestones people tend to mark with birthdays. Joshi adds that the expectation that birthdays are celebratory can also be a cause of anxiety, especially if the individual associates their birthday with a traumatic event or they are struggling in everyday life when the date rolls around.
How to Cope with Birthday Depression
1. Acknowledge Your Feelings
“The first step is to acknowledge your feelings and remind yourself that ultimately, you are not your feelings,” Joshi says. “This simple acknowledgement helps bring in important distance between you and these emotions and allows you to shift your mindset into self-care and self-soothing behaviors.”
2. Practice Gratitude
Joshi also advises spending time focusing on all the things that have gone right leading up to your birthday, as opposed to solely focusing on unaccomplished goals and expectations. If it helps, you can even write down a list of things you’re proud of that happened in the past year, and jot down the people who supported you.
“If you’re struggling with feeling like you haven’t met certain expectations, talk to other people in your life who can validate just how much you’ve accomplished in your life and can challenge you on your personal benchmarks of success,” Warren recommends.
3. Reassess and Reframe
When your birthday rolls around, it can also be a time to gently reassess and reframe goals and expectations. However, instead of seeing missed opportunities, Joshi counsels that you should instead view it as a possibility for progress and proactivity.
“Reflect on these goals or expectations again and see if you need to set these more realistically or problem solve to accomplish these goals,” she says. “Reflecting on past challenges and how you overcame those will also help you appreciate your life's journey so far, rather than beating yourself down for goals not yet accomplished.”
How to Help Others Experiencing Birthday Depression
If you have someone in your life experiencing birthday depression, the best thing you can do, according to Warren, is to lend a listening ear. “The best thing to do is hear them out and validate their experience. When someone is struggling with the birthday blues, they might feel silly being sad in a sea of all this excitement. Letting them know they are allowed to be sad, and maybe even sharing your story might make them feel seen and heard.”
So even if, like me, you’re not a birthday person (and might never be!), there are still so many ways to practice gratitude and enjoy the moment in your own way. Remember: Time is a gift, and aging is a privilege.