Most of us have seen the classic birthday trope in TV & Film. You have everyone forget all day, and then as you walk into a dark room later in the day all of your friends and family jump out from the shadows and yell ‘Surprise!’. Unfortunately, it’s very rare that this image translates to reality. So many of us each year suffer from a particular strand of depression when our birthday is approaching. This has come to be known as ‘Birthday Blues’. In this post I will be discussing this concept further, causes of this yearly sadness, and how to go about feeling better whenever the feeling sets in.
There are quite a handful of causes for the birthday blues, and these can differ from person to person depending on their situations in life. I personally have a very strange standing with my birthday. It’s not like all of them have been particularly terrible, but due to a shaky relationship with family and an issue with my own expectations (which we’ll come back to later), I have fallen victim to this kind of depression several times in my life.
We’ll start with one of the most straight forward causes of the birthday blues: Aging. It’s common sense that we get older each year, and most people aren’t overly bothered by this fact, but those of us with depression and anxiety, can sometimes see this rising number as a threat almost. It’s a sure day each year were part of our subconscious will tackle with our mortality and how long we have left on life’s clock. Sure, it’s nice when you hit certain milestone ages such as 13, 18 or 21, but the higher that number gets the less we look forward to celebrating our age and the more we are reminded that we are older, and we aren’t getting any younger.
Hindsight and reflection are other core issues and causes of the birthday blues which weave together with the previous cause quite clearly. As we get older, we have had more of our life pass us by, and with this comes a lot of looking back, regrets and sadness that some of our plans in life have not been achieved. It can be quite overwhelming to look back on a previous year, and look for your accomplishments and highlights, especially when you’re already feeling down. This will lead to you missing all of the happy moments you’re looking forward to and instead see you focus on the lows and mistakes which led you to today.
With birthdays, especially now in the age of social media, there can be such a social pressure around having a fantastic time. We see people post their lavish gifts or long speeches about what they have been up to, and it makes us feel like we aren’t aiming high enough, leaving us with a lingering sense of inadequacy. This leads me on to our next big cause, the one I mentioned above: Expectations.
Expectations are one of the biggest causes of my own birthday blues each year but are something I have gotten much better at managing. These can set in a few days or even weeks before the day itself and usually are worse the longer you’ve had to think about it. Like described at the start of this post, so many of us want people to remember our birthday and plan a big surprise and have it be a special celebration and a perfect day each year (even more so when it’s a big birthday). However, it is very rare that these expectations are actually met, leaving us feeling disappointed and not cared about.
One of the final big causes of birthday depression is loneliness, which is even more worth talking about this year than any other. With the covid-19 pandemic a lot of us have been isolated from those closest to us, and had our towns locked down, so any idea of a ‘normal’ birthday faded away for 2020. If lucky enough you may get an intimate day with friends and family depending on your country’s restrictions, but if not you may be feeling extremely lonely and with the pressure of birthday celebrations this may sink in a lot heavier than other times in the year.
Now that we have covered a handful of the main causes of birthday blues, we can move on to how we go about addressing these feelings and ease the stress and upset we feel as our birthdays approach. The first thing to consider if you’re going through these feelings of anxiety and depressions is to talk about them with those closest to you, be it friends, family or your therapist. Whilst these feelings may seem silly at the time, it’s important to address them before they cause additional sadness.
Most of the ways to remedy or ease the birthday blues is by breaking down the causes and using them to your advantage and with your control. For example, we have discussed how aging and reflecting on your past can be a big cause of your depression, but this can be used to our advantage. Instead of falling into negative thoughts about our past, we can choose to look back and focus on the positives, the good things that happened in the last year or few years. It helps us to focus on these so that we are aware that we haven’t wasted our time, that we have done things we wanted to, be it gone to shows we wanted to see, studied a course we wanted to, or even kicked a bad habit we had been meaning to. It’s amazing how many things we have achieved and are proud of if we only give ourselves enough time to see them.
The same rule can be applied to our issues with expectations. Whilst we have discussed how our heightened sense of anticipation can cause us to be left feeling let down, we can address this in a healthy way. Instead of expecting everyone to remember our birthday or throw an extravagant surprise party for us, we should instead adjust our expectations and think about what we really want/what we really think is going to happen. If you’re disappointed because your idealised version of the day didn’t come to fruition, it can cause you to spiral and take out your frustration not only on yourself but also those around you who usually don’t deserve it.
The most important way to ease the feelings that come along with birthday blues is as simple as celebrating how YOU want. If you take only one thing away from this post, let it be this: The only person in this world who knows every exact detail of what you would like to do for your birthday is you, so do what you can to plan your special day how you see it. If you want people to know it’s your birthday, then tell them and don’t hope that they will remember. If you want a party, then organise one and invite those you want to attend. If you want to go see a show, or to a fancy meal, or spend the day entirely alone with some peaceful time to yourself, then do it. You do you.
We can’t expect the people we know to remember everything about us, know what we want and act accordingly. Sometimes we have to be the person to speak up and tell others what we would like. Whilst I have experienced birthday blues in the past as discussed above, I have gotten way better at managing these feelings and started to enjoy my birthday in recent years. I’m writing this a day before my birthday and I haven’t had a single feeling of depression regarding this at all which would have been a foreign concept years ago. The important first step is noticing that these feelings are there.
If you’re experiencing any of the feelings described in this post, or know somebody who is, then there are many things you can do to help. Talking to somebody about how you or they are feeling can be very beneficial. If you’re not sure what to do but need urgent help, there are many emergency hotlines that provide support and encouragement such as Mind.org and Samaritans.org. You’re not alone in feeling this way, others are there to help.