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The birthday blues are real. Here’s how to get through them

4 minute read
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If turning the corner on another year is bringing up difficult emotions, these tips can help you reframe your birthday as a day of peace — if not joy.  

Kim Robinson

By Kim Robinson

Not everyone loves, or even likes, celebrating their birthday. For some people, taking another trip around the sun can bring up feelings of anxiety, loneliness, sadness, disappointment and even depression.

And while “the birthday blues” isn’t an official clinical diagnosis, it is something that many people experience, says Debra Kissen, PhD. She’s co-chair of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s Public Education Committee.

There are many reasons some people don’t enjoy their birthday. Fear and anxiety around aging is one common reason, Kissen says.

“There can be a lot of mixed feelings about the passage of time,” she says. Unlike birthdays in your youth, when you typically get to do more as you age, things may be different in later adulthood. You might start noticing you can do less than you once did, she says.

Expectations about where you should be at certain stages of life can also be an issue, she adds. That can happen even at a young age. For example, you might turn 25 and feel disappointed that you’re not further along in your career or that you’re still living at home with your parents.

Social pressure can also turn a birthday sour. Some people feel pressure to live it up on their birthday. Then they may be discouraged when reality doesn’t live up to their expectations. Others might feel lonelier or more isolated on their birthday, Kissen says.

“Feeling socially isolated and lonely is hard on an average day. But it’s particularly hard on a day when you’re supposed to feel special,” she says.

Birthdays in general are a time that may be ripe with fears about the future, as well as remorse about the past, Kissen says. And they can be especially tough for people who have existing depression or anxiety. (If you’re struggling with ongoing depression or anxiety, our network of therapists are here to help. Work with someone from the comfort of home — no insurance required. Learn more.)

Tips for coping with the birthday blues

Having mixed feelings about aging is normal. But if your birthday blues are interfering with your life or happiness, it’s time to put some coping strategies in place. Here are some to try.

Celebrate your way
If your idea of the perfect birthday is eating Thai food and watching old movies on the couch, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to spend your day. It’s important not to put too many expectations on the day or to try to make everyone else happy.

Don’t compare
Some people might get a boost from going on Facebook and seeing happy birthday messages written on their page. For others, that could lead to unhealthy comparisons, Kissen says.

“You might correlate the number of people who remembered your birthday to how loved you are,” she says. This can be a slippery slope, with no real upside. She recommends staying off social media if your birthday upsets you.

Be vulnerable
If you dread your birthday out of fear of spending it alone, be proactive, Kissen says. Ask a loved one or 2 to meet up for drinks or appetizers on your birthday. Don’t wait to see who reaches out to you first. “It might feel risky, but it teaches your brain that you can handle feeling vulnerable,” she says.

Practice mindfulness
Staying in the moment is a good way to work past some common causes of the birthday blues. That means engaging in the present rather than worrying about the past or future, Kissen says.

For example, set an intention to mindfully taste your food and appreciate the flavors and sensations in every bite. Or go on a mindful hike and take in the natural beauty. If your mind wanders to a worrying thought, simply notice the mental chatter and redirect your attention back to natural environment around you.

But don’t wait until you’re sad to practice mindfulness, Kissen says. Build your mindfulness muscles every day through mindfulness meditation. That can mean simply sitting somewhere quietly and focusing on your breathing or doing some yoga poses, according to the Mayo Clinic. Research shows that practicing mindfulness can help lessen symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Here are 8 mini mindfulness exercises you can try right now.

Work through your worries
Letting your brain spiral into a cycle of worrying isn’t good, but neither is trying to shut down all your concerns. Face your worries instead.

“Ask yourself: What are the core fears and catastrophic thoughts that make birthdays so hard?” Kissen says. Go through each one and challenge your thinking, she says. For example, maybe you dislike your birthday because one of your parents died young or near your birthday and you’re afraid you’re destined for the same. Consider how realistic that really is, and think about anything you’re doing differently — eating well and exercising, for instance — that can make a difference.

Consider therapy
If your attitude toward your birthday is getting you down, therapy can be very helpful. While it’s possible to get over your birthday blues on your own, breaking a pattern of negative thinking can be tough to do solo, Kissen says.

Research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy can help people spend less time intensely worrying. And when they do that, it eases their symptoms of depression and anxiety. If having the birthday blues is “blocking your ability to live life on your terms, get help,” Kissen says.

Woman smiling
Think you’re ready to try therapy?

Additional sources
Meditating to reduce stress:
Mayo Clinic (2020). “Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress”
Mindfulness training: Psychiatric Clinics of North America. (2017) “Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Anxiety and Depression”
Cognitive behavioral therapy: Behavior Research and Therapy (2015). ”Repetitive negative thinking predicts depression and anxiety symptom improvement during brief cognitive behavioral therapy”