Birthdays can be a joyous time to celebrate yourself surrounded by loved ones. But the day can also bring on feelings of sadness and disappointment, known as the “birthday blues.” While “birthday depression” or the “birthday blues” is common, there are things you can do to manage these unpleasant feelings.
Here we’ll go into the causes of birthday depression, how it differs from clinical depression and provide some psychiatrist-backed tips on how to manage it.
Birthday depression or “birthday blues” is a term used to describe the depressed feelings a person may experience on the days leading up to or around their birthday. These feelings are temporary and have a clear-cut cause.
Some common signs of birthday depression include:
While some of the feelings associated with the “birthday blues” overlap with symptoms of clinical depression, it’s important to understand the difference between birthday depression and clinical depression.
Birthday depression is not a medical diagnosis or condition (thought that doesn’t make what you’re feeling any less valid). Unlike clinical depression, the “birthday blues” are fleeting and only experienced on or around a person’s birthday.
Clinical depression (AKA depression or major depressive disorder) is a diagnosable mental health condition characterized by intense feelings of sadness or hopelessness that occur for at least 2 consecutive weeks and are severe enough to affect a person’s daily life.
While holidays and birthdays can bring up feelings of grief or worry about our own mortality, “Holidays and birthdays generally should not cause clinical depression; however, one should monitor their mood, and if depressive symptoms persist for 2 weeks or more, then this would be concerning for a possible major depressive episode,” says Dr. Lin, a double board-certified psychiatrist.
Clinical depression is treatable and doesn’t just go away on its own. Here are some common symptoms of clinical depression:
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks and if they are severe enough to interfere with your everyday life, it’s possible you are experiencing something more than everyday sadness or “birthday blues”. Reaching out for help can be hard but professional support is available, and treatment can help you get back to feeling like yourself.
If you’re bogged down with negative emotions on your birthday, you may be thinking: what’s wrong with me, why can’t I just enjoy people celebrating me, I'm selfish for feeling this way. Try not to invalidate or judge any feelings that your birthday brings for you. You’re not broken.
There are plenty of potential causes for birthday sadness:
It’s not uncommon to feel disappointed on your birthday. Maybe you had certain expectations for how someone might celebrate or acknowledge you that went unmet. It is your special day, after all! It’s okay to have high expectations. But try communicating your needs clearly to others. How do you want them to show up for you? Being candid about how you expect to be celebrated doesn’t make someone’s actions any less meaningful and it can help you enjoy your day.
In addition to having your own ideas for how your birthday should go, it’s likely you’re feeling pressure from societal or even family expectations of what your past year should have looked like, including age-specific milestones. Decade or ‘milestone’ birthdays can be especially challenging for this reason. If you’re finding yourself dwelling on all the things you’ve yet to accomplish take a moment and reflect: which milestones or goals are meaningful to you?
“I often recommend patients reflect on their core values to see if the things they are doing in their life match those values,” says Dr. Lin. “These core values may be quite different from certain career goals.”
Try this exercise for yourself to help gain some perspective on what accomplishments are actually important to you and help you set plans for the future. You might find yourself more at ease with some of those negative feelings about your accomplishments.
While birthday depression can certainly feel lonely, you’re not necessarily alone in experiencing it. Contrary to what social media might have you believe, not everyone enjoys their birthday (even if they throw a big birthday party to celebrate it). Talk to a trusted friend of a family member about how you’re feeling—it’s likely they can relate. Even if it feels vulnerable to share what you’re going through, being open and honest about your feelings and emotional wellbeing can bring a sense of relief. Your loved ones are most likely going to be happy to support you through it. Plus, spending time with loved ones may help bring you out of a funk.
Journaling is a great science-backed way to cope with stress and emotional challenges and promote your wellbeing. It can be especially helpful for processing major life events—birthdays included! If the idea of writing down your thoughts and worries feels intimidating, lists are a great place to start. Try jotting down all the reasons you’re feeling sad around your birthday or making a list of all the things you’re ready to accomplish in the next year.
Read more about the surprising benefits of journaling (link)
It may sound cheesy, but there’s scientific proof that practicing gratitude can be good for your mental health. Dr. Lin recommends writing a gratitude list of things that you appreciate. It may just help you combat birthday sadness. One study found that people who consciously took stock of things that they were grateful for over a 10-week period, were more optimistic and felt better about their lives than those who didn’t practice gratitude.
The “birthday blues” aren’t necessarily a cause for concern, but if your symptoms persist well beyond your big day and are interfering with your daily life, that can be a sign that it’s time to seek professional help. A psychiatrist, licensed therapist, or your primary care doctor are all great places to start. Depending on your needs, you may benefit from treatment such as medication, therapy (like cognitive behavioral therapy), or both. A mental health professional will be able to evaluate and diagnose any underlying mental health conditions and work with you to come up with a treatment plan that’s right for you.
Not sure where to start? Talkiatry offers virtual, in-network psychiatry so you can get the care you need from the comfort of home. Take our 10-minute online assessment to see if Talkiatry is a good fit and get matched with a psychiatrist that fits your needs and takes your insurance.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Austin Lin is a double board-certified adult and addiction psychiatrist who has been in practice for over 9 years. At the center of Dr. Lin’s clinical approach is a strong emphasis on establishing trust and using a collaborative approach to help patients develop an individualized and cohesive plan so that they are able to achieve their goals.
Dr. Lin's practice focuses on medication management. Typically, he offers this in conjunction with supportive therapy, motivational interviewing, and/or cognitive behavioral therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. Occasionally, Dr. Lin may recommend that additional therapy is needed and ask that you bring a therapist into your care team in order to provide the best outcome.
Dr. Lin received his medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine. He went on to complete his residency in psychiatry at Harvard South Shore, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, where he served as Chief Resident and earned his 360° Professionalism award. He then had additional training in Addiction Psychiatry through his fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. After completing training, Dr. Lin has worked as an Addiction Psychiatrist and Director of Adult Services in the Trauma and Resilience Center (TRC) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). He specialized in treating patients with a history of depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance use disorders.
Dr. Lin has held an academic appointment at UTHealth, and he has spent his professional career supervising and teaching medical students and psychiatry residents.