You’re Not Alone If You Get the Birthday BluesHello, my people.
Ah, birthdays. The perfect chance to gather your friends at a dinner and post captions like, “Here’s to another trip ’round the sun,” or “More life.” But, if you’re like me, what should be a celebratory day (or week…or month, if you're extra like that) can often be clouded by weird feelings and straight up sadness.
I love birthdays, but even as someone who always tries to extend the occasion past my allotted 24 hours and knows that getting older is a gift, I sometimes get hit with feelings that I never fully identified until I heard of the birthday blues.
If you thumb through the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), you won’t find birthday blues in there. Shocker, I know. But even if something’s not in this big book of diagnostic criteria or thoroughly studied by researchers, it can still be very much a thing.
As someone who once left their own birthday kickback to go home and literally do nothing because I was feeling weird about the clock striking midnight, I’m here to say: You’re not alone. Here’s what it means to have the birthday blues, why it happens, and how to deal when it strikes.
What are the birthday blues?
Though there’s not much research on the topic (aside from a few studies on the connection between birthdays and suicide rates), the birthday blues are something psychologist Jamie Zuckerman, PsyD, often sees in her practice.
If you can relate to this unique kind of bummer, you know that birthday blues (also sometimes referred to as “birthday depression”) tend to come along with low mood, low energy, and a general lack of interest in the day. But that’s not all—sorry, really wish it was. You may also feel disappointed in your life (casual, right?) and/or how the day is shaking out, and a bittersweet feeling if your bday reminds you of something sad. So, uh, not the kind of feelings you want sticking around when people excitedly ask you, “Are you doing anything fun to celebrate!?”
Why do the birthday blues happen?
Did we mention there’s not much research on this topic? We don’t know a whole lot about why the birthday blues strike, but, anecdotally, Dr. Zuckerman has noticed a few common risk factors:
1. You have complicated feelings about getting older.
Yeah, aging means you’re also becoming a well-adjusted adult, but in a culture that places such importance on being—and appearing—youthful, birthdays can be a huge concern for some, Dr. Zuckerman says.
Worrying about what aging looks like for you can be scary and stressful, especially when you factor in more (or just different) health issues, more responsibilities, and getting closer to that final curtain call, whether we want to admit it or not.
Even as someone who tends to think of birthdays as a blessing that many don’t get to enjoy (and gets kind of excited thinking about the day my hair turns gray), I can’t help but feel really nervous about the (often cruel) passage of time—not to be dramatic. Plus, I think about how my loved ones are also getting older and how we won’t be around forever.
2. You feel like the pressure is on.
Ever scroll IG and see entire slideshows dedicated to friends celebrating their bestie’s birthday? Or see a group of people going on a lavish vacay to celebrate? (Side note: How are so many people affording this!?) Social media can make us feel like we have to live up to these unspoken norms of going all out on our birthdays or being surrounded on the day by doting loved ones. And if that’s not what your bday looks like this year (or ever), you might understandably feel really crappy in comparison.
Placing high expectations on yourself when it comes to where you think you should be at in life by a certain age can also wreak havoc on your emotions, Dr. Zuckerman says. For instance, I’m already dreading not feeling “thirty, flirty, and thriving” enough on that big day. So if you’re coming up on an age that you expected would come with marriage/kids/home ownership/an impressive-as-hell job, it makes sense that you might feel less-than-psyched about your birthday.
3. Your birthday brings up tough memories.
A lot of times, birthdays can be associated with sad memories, like a loved one who isn’t there to celebrate, Dr. Zuckerman says. Birthdays might also remind people of estranged family members, memories, or past trauma experienced around that time of year.
4. You’re dealing with low self-esteem and anxiety.
The birthday blues can happen to anyone, but Dr. Zuckerman says the patients who bring this up to her tend to have trouble with their confidence and feel anxious being in the spotlight. “If they have a party or people are calling them or posting on social media and [tagging] them, it can be very uncomfortable,” she says. And the change in routine around birthdays can be tough for people with anxiety.
How to make birthdays suck a little less.
I know I should chill TF out on my birthday, but that’s easier said than done. So until I figure out a fix, I’ll be reminding myself that these emotions are totally normal.
But if you want your next one to be a little more joyous or just not as awful (an honorable starting point), start by communicating your expectations and wishes to the people who want to celebrate you ahead of time. Don’t want everyone to flood your otherwise barren Facebook wall with birthday messages? Take that info off your profile! Do you want to have a chill dinner with your besties? Say so! Want to go on an all-inclusive trip for your next milestone? Start planning with your crew now!
The bar for birthday plans shouldn’t be in the gutter, but remembering that life happens can help manage your expectations for the day. You might have to deal with crappy coworkers who seem determined to ruin your bday vibe (a crime, TBH), you might not get flooded with HBD texts at midnight, and you might even get sick—something Dr. Zuckerman sees happen to people who are particularly stressed around this time. Like any day, birthdays can be unpredictable, so try to have some mental flexibility when things don’t turn out as planned. “Go into it knowing that the weeks leading up are probably gonna be uncomfortable for you,” Dr. Zuckerman says. That can help you sit with those feelings without getting upset with yourself for feeling that way.
If you tend to feel bad about where you’re at in life when milestones like this come up, try to remember how far you’ve come. In the days leading up to my latest birthday, I wrote down all the cool stuff I did and achieved this year and patted myself on the back for all the progress I’ve made. Having an easily accessible list made it so much easier to remember that I have things to celebrate.
And don’t forget to do something for yourself. Even if you’re not ushered into a surprise birthday party like you wanted, know that you can take control of your day by planning something you like. Knowing what I know about my birthday ~feelings~, I learned to start planning ahead. After a couple of weird years, I had a sense that this last birthday would have me in my feels. My therapist told me to do something I knew I’d enjoy and not something I thought I’d like, and it paid off. I spent the day at a Paramore concert (hell yes for healing my inner wannabe emo child) and kept the weekend low-key, partaking in my favorite activity of ordering the latest trendy drink even though I knew I’d probably hate it.
And, of course, if you’re really consumed by pre-birthday woes, consider checking in with a mental health professional before the big day so you can get the tools you need to navigate those feelings. Birthdays can be tough, but a therapist can help walk you through how to make them suck a little less.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.