It should be a time for celebration, but sometimes our birthday triggers difficult feelings. Here, we explore how to cope with the annual event

For most people, birthdays are a fun and happy time to celebrate with friends and family. After all, they only happen once a year. However, birthdays can sometimes be accompanied by feelings of disinterest, depression, and sadness on, or in the days leading to, your birthday – AKA the birthday blues.

But, why does this happen? “The expectation to feel joy and celebrate when we don’t feel like it or may not have good reason to, can be part of the issue,” says counsellor James Eve. “‘I should feel happy or elated,’ makes no allowances for what you actually feel. We can recognise that even occasions that are a cause for celebration can contain within them moments of sadness or grief.”

However, there are a range of techniques you can utilise, and ways that you can alleviate these blue feelings...

1. Manage your expectations

Unfulfilled expectations can leave us feeling disappointed. Perhaps you may have wanted to buy a house or change careers by the time you reached a certain age, but that didn’t happen.

“The beautiful thing about expectations is that they can always be changed or managed,” James explains. “If you didn’t achieve X, then perhaps change it to Y, or break down X into more manageable chunks. Did you want to climb Mount Everest? Perhaps start with Ben Nevis.”

2. Embrace ageing

While society often tells us to fear it, ageing is a completely natural process. In fact, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the older you get, the happier you become.

“As we age, we also have a better understanding of what makes us tick, and can make more informed decisions,” James says. “With maturity, we may also have the opportunity to be more fully ourselves, to drop any pretenses, or stop trying to fit in, which can be liberating and something not easily obtained from our youth.”

3. Gratitude attitude

It’s common human nature to focus more on the negativities surrounding your life. Perhaps you just lost your job, or broke up with your partner, and you may feel that there is nothing worth being thankful for on your birthday. Actively focusing on what brings you joy and reflecting on the positives can help with such feelings.

James highlights how you can incorporate this into your day-to-day life: “Try a daily practice of 15 minutes. Focus on what you are grateful for; reflect on people, places, or objects that bring you joy. If this feels difficult, keep going with it. We have to work the muscle for it to be stronger.”


4. Decide what your version of ‘celebration’ is

During birthdays, it’s acceptable for you to be selfish. By identifying your desires, you can decide whether an extravagant celebration, a small family dinner, a solo day at the beach, or not celebrating at all, is what works for you.

“You should not feel pressured to please others with what you do,” James emphasises. “Celebrating means different things to different people.”

5. Plan the way you want, but don’t over plan

Taking time to think about what you want to do, and planning for it, can be helpful.

Some of these basic questions can be a great place to start: are you going to be inviting your friends, and if so, which ones? Will your family be there? Will the celebration be in the morning or evening? How much notice is adequate?

Too many plans can also be stressful, and put undue pressure on your birthday. If you find yourself getting stressed out, try something more simple.

6. To absent friends, and new ones

With life moving forward, you might find that some of your friends have moved away, or your friendship drifted. You may also find yourself alone on your birthday for varied reasons. Such situations, while completely normal, can leave you feeling lonely or sad.

“This may be a great opportunity to increase your social circle and meet new people. You can try organising work drinks or joining a club,” James says. Celebrating your birthday alone is also completely OK, and there are various ways you can make this day feel special. You can give yourself a gift, a makeover, or volunteer for a cause that matters to you.

7. There’s always next year

Sometimes, there are certain things which may have happened, like the death of a loved one, or the absence of friends, which may mean that experiencing happiness on this day is difficult.

“We have good years and bad years, and birthdays can be the same,” James says. “If you feel sad or depressed, don’t suffer alone – share your feelings with friends, family or a therapist. And if a birthday doesn’t go as planned for whatever reason, remember there’s always next year.”

If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.