I didn't always hate my birthday. As a kid, birthdays were met with giddy excitement, in anticipation of 'The Best Day Of The Year'. In true Leo moon fashion, I adored that all the attention was showered on me — I'd take some of Coles' finest cupcakes to school, everyone would sing to me and I'd come home to one of my mum's home-baked cakes that she'd chosen from the Women's Weekly cookbook (usually Dolly Varden cakes, IYKYK). Life was good. Until it wasn't.
As I got older, the blues began to set in. When my birthday approached, I found myself feeling uneasy and I perpetually nauseous. I couldn't leave the house without a pit in my stomach, and you could practically feel the anxiety living it up in the back of my throat. The idea of planning a birthday event was panic-attack-inducing. I skirted around any birthday conversations, hoping they would just go away. They didn't.
For me, and so many other people, birthdays are meant to be a time of celebration. They're practically a big love letter — a time when the people you love have an opportunity to really show up. Because if they don't make you a homemade cake for your birthday and text you at midnight, then how much do your friends really love you? Social media has intensified these unrealistic expectations — scroll through your Stories and you're met with grand declarations of love (usually in the form of photo montages), surprise flower deliveries, cute gifts, homemade cards and nights out with tables full of friends. Cool, that's great and all. But what if your birthdays never look like that?
By the time August 27 rolls around, my anxiety morphs into pure sadness. These days, the melancholy is almost as certain as my birthday. A standard birthday goes something like this:
I wake up, hoping to see text messages from all my friends. Then reality comes cruising through, gifting me with messages from only one or two people (but always my mum). That's okay, they're probably still sleeping. I wait for that special birthday 'buzz' to fill my body — as if when I go into a cafe, everyone would miraculously just know it was my birthday and buy me free brunch. Unsurprisingly, this never happens. As the day goes on, there's a cloud that follows me everywhere; a perpetual anti-climax. By mid-morning, I inevitably retreat back to my bedroom, cancel my evening plans ("Sorry, I'm sick"), close the blinds, wrap myself up inside my doona, and binge-watch whatever shitty show comes up on Netflix. I've always hoped that that the next birthday would be different. Special, even. But after a few years of unexplainable sadness, I've begun to just brace myself for the letdown.
I'll admit that sounds a little melodramatic, but it's a sentiment that even has its own name — the Birthday Blues. It turns out that I'm not the only one who prefers to stay inside and cry every birthday. There's a whole bunch of us! How good! But is birthday depression actually a real thing? And how can we combat its effects every time we blow out the candles? We spoke to psychologist Ash King to find out.
What Is Birthday Depression?
It's exactly what it says on the tin. Birthday depression, or birthday blues, refers to that feeling of sadness, anxiety, or apathy that surrounds your birthday. "People who have birthday depression often spend their birthdays with a low sense of energy and feel gloomy, with thoughts that often focus on their past," King tells Refinery29 Australia. It's a phenomenon that is extremely common (seriously, ask your friends), but despite this, there's still very little research surrounding it.
Why Do We Get Birthday Depression?
"A birthday is usually a date that's quite significant in people's lives," King says. "Its significance is also impacted by the person's age, gender, culture and the history of what birthdays have meant to them."
While there hasn't been much research into birthday depression specifically, anecdotally, the birthday blues are becoming a common feeling that people experience each year. Ella*, 30, tells us about her own birthday depression. "Social media really affects me. I see people making birthday posts claiming it's their 'birthday week'; people who are spoilt all week by their friends and family. I get depressed because I don't get that," she shares. "But when I do get spoilt, I feel like I don't deserve it. So I tend to not want to make my birthday a 'thing', even though deep inside, I think I do."
Beth, 31, has similar sentiments. "I feel behind on life's plans, or at least what is expected to be achieved by a certain age," she says. And she's not alone.
"People who get down on their birthday might be confronting fears of getting older and facing their own mortality," King says. "For others, it could prompt reflection on unrealised hopes, vanished expectations and past failures. People might feel like they’re not where they thought they would be or wanted to be at this stage of life. People might also feel overwhelmed by the pressure to feel happy and joyful on this day that is routinely dedicated to celebrations (at least in Western cultures). For some people, it might also activate traumatic memories — particularly if birthdays are a reminder of sad, overwhelming or tragic experiences."
How Can I Keep The Birthday Blues Away?
Whether it's your birthday (and hey, happy birthday, you good thing!) or you're mentally prepping yourself for the day, King shares a few clever strategies that you can employ to make the day a little less sucky. And who knows, you might even enjoy it.
1. Get Reflective
Get your journals out; it's time to get deep. "Consider what thoughts are feelings are showing up for you around this time of year," King says. "Why might this anniversary prompt challenging feelings?"
This could be anything from a fear of ageing, loneliness, past trauma, or even a friend flaking on your birthday plans. The important bit is to sit in these feelings and really interrogate why you're feeling the way you do, says King. Maybe you feel like you're behind in life with the approach of a milestone birthday. Maybe birthdays make it clear that your social network isn't as strong as you'd like it to be. Maybe it just brings out your fear of rejection. Whatever it is, really get into the weeds with why you feel the way you do.
2. Practice Self Compassion
Yes, I know you've been told this a thousand times already, but consider this to be another reminder. Be nice to yourself! Give yourself a bit of credit for how far you've come, where you're at now, and where you're going. If you don't have the energy to celebrate your accomplishments, at least treat yourself with kindness. Take yourself out for a nice lunch, have a bubble bath, or buy yourself something nice — go wherever your love language guides you.
King says it's important to "respond to these thoughts and feelings with kindness and compassion. After all, it’s human to feel sad and to experience disappointment and regret."
3. Lower Your Expectations
"It's tough to be harbouring these feelings on your birthday when others (and perhaps even yourself) feel like it's time to be happy and celebrate", King says. "Your emotions don’t follow some appropriate, socially sanctioned calendar. They manifest spontaneously and sometimes at less-than-ideal times. Don't put pressure on yourself to feel a certain kind of way just because it's your birthday. And if you know that you tend to feel low around your birthday, perhaps go even more gently with yourself."
4. Be Honest
As always, vulnerability is key to having a good time. "Tell the people around you how you might feel around your birthday," King says. "Let them know that you might need something more gentle and nurturing than a big birthday hoon, given that this day is something challenging for you."
Not only can this help you relieve stress and anxiety leading up to the big day, but you might also find that your friendships benefit from this kind of honesty. After a candid conversation with a friend of mine about my birthday anxiety, she now makes a clear and concerted effort to make me feel special — Every. Single. Birthday. Usually in cake form. It's fantastic, and something I might have not been gifted with if I hadn't had those conversations with her.
5. Give Yourself Permission To Feel Good
"Even though you might be used to experiencing some challenging emotions on your birthday, that’s not to say that you cannot do things that offer you the opportunity to feel good, relaxed, grateful or connected", King says. "Perhaps consider what you might curate for yourself to help make this happen. Maybe it's a low-key dinner with close friends, a walk in nature, a massage or a dance class."
But Beware — The Birthday Blues Can Be A Sign Of Something More Serious
Because there hasn't been a lot of research into birthday depression, there are also a lot of unknowns out there. It can be easy to shrug your sad day off as just a one-off, but the birthday blues can also be a symptom of something more sinister. "It's a good idea to understand if your symptoms are a manifestation of a larger depressive disorder," King says.
King speculates that it's more likely to impact those with a history of depressive disorders or those who have traumatic or difficult memories associated with their birthdays.
"Birthday Blues" isn't a formal diagnosis, so if it creeps in around your birthday and then disappears soon after, it's probably something that's just 'anniversary'-dependent, King says. But if it sticks around longer, it might be time to chat to a GP or psychologist as there might be something bigger bubbling beneath the surface.