The Many Reasons People Experience Birthday Depression

It's birthday time! A time to celebrate your lack of death since birth. A time to celebrate ... you! For not being someone else, and for having parents who procreated and granted to you DNA. A time to have a look around and take stock of your myriad accomplishments. A time to gaze at your home and its mounting clutter of possessions, the unending bills that provide you with your home and possessions, the ceaseless barrage of work hours that pay for the bills, the undying debt that continues to smother and will haunt you till you exit life for the afterlife, and ... okay, nevermind. Maybe birthdays aren't so happy after all. So much for the tinsel and confetti.

But really, is it any wonder why some folks get sad at birthday time? This is especially true if expectations are so high. How relentlessly and unrealistically amped up is someone supposed to get about another trip around the sun? Lucia Montesi, clinical psychologist in Macerata, Italy, raises this exact point in a Vice article about the topic. As she expertly states, "Our culture exaggerates the importance of youth, beauty, and efficiency as criteria that define a person's value and their ability to be appreciated or even loved." Too true. This, plus being reminded about childhoods that might not have been too happy, combined with implicit societal expectations about age-based personal and professional progress at age 25, 30, 35, 40, etc., and you've got a recipe for true birthday depression. 

The despair of being born

There's a lot of information online about what's been dubbed the "birthday blues," or "birthday depression," which despite its name should not at all be taken for an official medical disorder diagnosed by a clinician using the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Many articles take the form of self-help learning lists or hand-on-the-shoulder "it'll be alright; we get it" pop therapizing. This is fine — so long as prowling the internet doesn't unhelpfully complicate existence with woes that wouldn't exist otherwise. Nonetheless, sites like Refinery29 warn that if the birthday blues don't go away, something else might be up, and help may be in order.  

Sites like Medical News Today describe birthday sadness in terms of feeling tired or anxious in the days leading up to the big cake-eating day or wanting to avoid people. True to its evidence-driven field, Psych Central says that increased irritability, difficulty focusing, and a disinterest in previously enjoyed activities might be a sign of the birthday blues. Verywell Mind, on the other hand, looks inward at symptoms like obsessing over past events and fearing death.

Sites like Refinery29 describe loving one's birthday as a child, then growing to hate it with age. Vice concurs, pointing to the ever-swelling gamut of life's harsh truths as a reason for the souring of birthday celebrations. This is particularly true if some specific event — losing a job, breaking up with a partner, etc. — happens or once happened around birthday time.

Empty reminders of impending death

If it hasn't been made clear so far, there are lots of specific causes of birthday depression beyond the general malaise of conscious existence. Psych Central says that such causes "may be as unique as you are." But despite the details changing — the names, the locations, the faces, and so on — there are general categories of causes that lead to feeling down around birthday time.  

As we've alluded, Vice points to fear of aging as a big factor in why people get sad around their birthdays; each year of life is one year closer to the grave, after all. Then there are the performative elements of a birthday gathering, where the event is all about you and there's a lot of attention from people, wanted or not; this might be difficult for the quiet and private. Psych Central posits the opposite: maybe there's no one around at birthday time. Additionally, Science of People describes a "lack of accomplishments" as a reason for growing sad around one's birthday, which in a competitive world where everyone seems to be comparing themselves to each other in every way, online and off-, makes complete sense. On top of all these reasons and more, Very Well Mind mentions not specific past traumatic events related to birthdays but birthdays as a general time of increased family drama and stress. And even beyond all these causes, is it any wonder why repeated actions cause less excitement and interest? That's the real truth of maturity.

A matter of perspective

If this article has at all sounded morose or gloomy, that's not unintentional. It's okay to be sad, same as it's okay to talk about death, aging, and a lack of accomplishments. But as unhelpful as it is to plug one's ears and pretend everything is okay, it's equally unhelpful to dwell too much on dark things — like at birthday time. Sites like Medical News Today suggest placing a "sadness limit" on such feelings, to give space to explore them but not be consumed by them. This is the final, hopeful point about the birthday blues: perspective changes everything, and perspective is always in one's control.

In addition to a sadness limit, Medical News Today lists a whole bunch of wise, non-schmaltzy advice for folks feeling down around birthday time: maintain realistic expectations, tell people how you actually feel, and try to learn something from your sadness. Setting goals for the future — rather than merely pondering the past — is also critical. Science of People concurs on this point and even suggests writing things down like "What did I learn this past year?" or "What do you want to learn this year?" Very Well Mind picks up the baton and suggests doing something you actually want to do on your birthday — not merely aping what others do — or doing what you think you ought to do. In other words, "Celebrate however you feel comfortable." Such advice rings true not just on one's birthday, but year-round.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.