Why Do Birthdays Make People Anxious?

Photo: Getty Images.
There are two types of people in the world: People who love their birthday so much that they celebrate it all month long, and those who can't even stand one day of celebration. On a recent episode of Anna Faris' podcast, Unqualified, she touched on why this might be. "I've just found in my past that, a lot of times when you put that much pressure on something, you're bound to be a little disappointed," she says. "With birthdays, it's the celebration of you, so it feels like, Shouldn't this be grander? Or, My friends didn't text me. That kind of stuff."
It's actually normal to feel anxious or depressed on your birthday, even though it's supposed to be a time for celebration, says Debra Kissen, PhD, clinical director of Light on Anxiety, a cognitive behavioral therapy treatment center in Chicago. "Anytime you're supposed to be happy, and supposed to be shown love, and supposed to have connections to people who are thinking of you is a setup for disappointment," Dr. Kissen says.
Birthdays are also a tangible way to measure the passage of time, which can bring out some grim feelings. "As you're getting older, each year you're getting closer to death," Dr. Kissen says. That sounds incredibly morbid, but on your birthday you might recognize just how fleeting life is, which can be a bummer, she says. You might also take stock of where you are emotionally, she says. For example, you think, Am I as happy as I should be? Are people thinking of me today?
There's also pressure to have a lit birthday party that's pretty much drilled into our heads from birth, Dr. Kissen says. If you're someone with social anxiety, then parties might not be your idea of fun, but you do it on your birthday because that's what you're supposed to do. "Even for those who don't like attention on them, to have everyone singing at you or looking at you can be a nightmare," she says. Just the act of scrolling through your phone contacts and trying to muster up enough people to invite for a proper party can be excruciating.
Social media also doesn't always make this easier. On your birthday, it's impossible to not tally up how many people came out of the woodwork to wish you a happy birthday on Facebook, or which of your friends posted a collage of photos on Instagram as a tribute to you. Or, you might feel pressured to have a party because you see all your friends on social media having birthday parties, too, she says."Social media breeds comparisons."
On your birthday and other days of the year, notice when your mind goes down that rabbit hole. "Return to the present and try to disengage from that kind of thinking," she says. "You can't stop your mind, but you could choose to say, This is where I'm at now." This takes some practice, and Dr. Kissen says it can be helpful for some people to create a thought log. "Notice when you're feeling upset and take a step back: What are the thoughts I'm having right now?"
While birthdays seem like a setup for anxiety, they don't have to be. You probably know yourself well enough to understand what makes you happy, and on your birthday you should do whatever that is. "Try to be authentic with yourself, and figure out: what would really be a way for me to celebrate the fact that I'm alive in this moment, and have this opportunity to have the experience of life?" Dr. Kissen says. "Try not to get caught up in the noise."
In some cases, your mind gets the best of you, and your thoughts aren't actually based in reality. If it seems like you don't have friends who care about you on your birthday, counter those anxious, maladaptive thoughts with realistic and positive ones, Dr. Kissen says. In reality, there are people who do care about you. "Talking from the more extreme to the realistic thoughts is one way to get un-stuck from that," she says. And be patient, because "the act of mindfully attending to the moment is a muscle that gets stronger," she says.
So, although the whole point of Faris' podcast is to give "unqualified" advice, she's actually spot-on when it comes to birthday anxiety. Whether your idea of a good time is table service at a nightclub or taking a pottery class with your close friends, it's your day — so do whatever makes it a happy one.

More from Mind

R29 Original Series