You're not the only one struggling with birthday blues
It’s perfectly normal to feel sad on your birthday
We all have a birthday we remember from way back when we were kids. The birthday to end all birthdays. When we dressed up as superheroes, and ate as many gulab jamuns and rasmalais as we could without getting sick. For me, this was my 7th birthday. My adult brain cannot fathom why I asked my mother to dress me as a white gown-wearing bride, but she really went all out, complete with a veil and everything. I had a grand party with all my buas and maasis in attendance, along with my friends.
Now, every time I look at the wedding dress-wearing version of myself, I’m baffled at how content I was with the possibility of endless cake and cookies. Fifteen years later, that childlike enthusiasm isn’t the only thing that’s changed. On my birthday a few weeks ago, my old friend anxiety kicked off the day in style, accompanied by its favourite chaddi buddy, gastrointestinal issues. This has become a trend over the last four years. As I get closer to my birthday, my anxiety takes centre stage and incessant panic attacks become the main character of my life.
According to Sonali Gupta, a Mumbai-based psychologist, this is very common. “Birthdays are one of those life events that can trigger latent anxiety. If yours leads to sadness, anxiety and discomfort, you are not alone.”
Why do people suffer from birthday blues?
Tying your age in with your achievements
Birthdays serve as an annual reminder that we’re inching closer to wrinkles and crutches. When we’re younger, we imagine what our life will be like when we reach a particular age. If that age arrives and we haven’t reached all of our goals, it might cause you to experience the birthday blues.
“There is strong evidence that life events can trigger stress or depression,” says Stewart Shankman, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Birthdays can be one of those events, particularly a milestone birthday. If I’m no longer in my 30s, now I’m 40 years old, what does that mean for who I am?” he adds.
Perhaps your birthday heightens your apprehension about growing older and facing your own mortality. According to a study on the effects of birthday blues, individuals with a history of high blood pressure were shown to be more likely to have a stroke or heart attack on their birthday.
Struggling with failed expectations
A birthday arrives with its own set of expectations, as you picture a beautiful day spent with your loved ones. The pressure of such expectations, as well as the consequences if they aren’t achieved, may be stressful.
“One has expectations that others are going to congratulate them, remember the birthday, give a gift. If that doesn’t happen, it’s very disappointing,” says Myrna Weissman, chief of the division of epidemiology at New York State Psychiatric Institute.
We carry the expectation of having a great birthday bash from our childhood to well into adulthood. We expect our friends and families to have planned a grand gesture or to shower us with extra attention. And when we don’t receive what we want, we’re disappointed. This is particularly prevalent among the elderly, who frequently spend their birthdays alone. The risk of self-inflicted deaths increased in the 30 days before and following a birthday, according to a survey of people aged 75 and more.
Sometimes, you feel the weight of the expectations that others have of you on your birthday and that can trigger anxiety. Some people appreciate having a day dedicated to them, while others can’t tolerate the uncomfortable sensation of being thrust into the spotlight and having a room full of people sing ‘Happy Birthday’. They may feel a lot of pressure to socialise, arrange a party, return phone calls and so on, which can lead to one experiencing birthday blues.
Seeing yourself through the lens of social media
I often find myself posting on social media to prove, even to myself, that I’m living a great life. Social media pushes people to compare themselves to others. It can make you feel insufficient, as if your celebration isn’t large enough, or that your friends haven’t gone out of their way to make it memorable.
Being triggered by related trauma
According to Dr Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, PhD, a certified clinical psychologist, if someone has suffered trauma in their lives, their birthday may serve as a trigger.
A close friend of mine hates celebrating her birthday because her mother passed away during her birthday month when she was younger. “Meaningful life events also elicit memories, expectations, and disappointments,” says Weissman.
“For example, many of my patients have experienced depression triggered by the anniversary of a loved one’s death and the memories that accompany that date,” she adds.
A woman exhibited anxiety symptoms around her 75th birthday, according to a report on birthday blues, because her mother died at the age of 75.
How to cope with them
Allow yourself to feel, be it good or bad
I often feel like I’m being an ungrateful brat if I’m feeling sad on my birthday. “Everyone is doing so much for me. Why can’t I just appreciate it? What is wrong with me?” These are some of the thoughts that often dominate my mind.
Gupta recommends doing away with these feelings of guilt by actively telling yourself that it’s okay to be sad, birthday or not.
“Give yourself permission to experience all kinds of feelings, learning to stay with not just the emotions that evoke hope but also the ones that are uncomfortable. Sometimes the very act of listening and bearing witness to our emotions is enough for us to recognise areas that require deep inner work,” she says.
Especially when it comes to social media, it’s a good idea to remember that most of it is performative. Nobody has a perfect life, perfect birthdays toh bahaut dur ki baat hai.
Celebrate how you feel comfortable
“Some people may feel guilty for feeling sad when loved ones or friends want to celebrate and plan festivities, though the birthday person may just want to avoid these kinds of celebrations,” says Rosa. He advises expressing your sentiments, goals, and needs, rather than doing something that will make you feel worse or guilty.
It’s your day, so do what makes you happy, whether that means celebrating with loved ones or staying at home to take care of yourself. If all the birthday attention stirs up feelings of sadness, consider keeping your birthday to yourself. That’s what I do and sure, it doesn’t solve everything, but not having to sift through your Facebook and Instagram thanking everyone on the planet for their wishes will save you some extra work.
Having said that, it’s okay if you’re someone who wants to tell everyone it’s your birthday. Wanting to get fussed over on your birthday is a valid emotion. All’s fair when it comes to birthdays, we say.
Don’t wait for a birthday to celebrate yourself
Because we grow up being made to feel special on our birthdays, we internalise that thought process and think that we only deserve to feel special on our birthdays. There’s so much that happens to us in the course of a year, so don’t wait for your birthday to celebrate yourself. It can be something simple, like treating yourself with sushi at the end of a hard day (my kind of self-care) or throwing a massive rager for that promotion you’ve been working towards all year.
Every day might not be a birthday, but there’s no harm in celebrating the little wins. I sure will, at the end of the day, with a bowl of choco-chip ice cream and my favourite movie. My win, you ask? Completing this article, of course.