Each year, on April 12, Tyler Stewart begins to feel a bit melancholy and uncomfortable. That’s because the following day, April 13, is his birthday. Stewart usually enjoys getting together with friends or hosting parties on his apartment’s rooftop, but birthdays are different.
“There’s no condition I deal with on a day-to-day basis that creates any sort of anxiety, but when it comes to my birthday, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of making something about myself,” says Stewart, 32, who works as the director of digital strategy for a New York City media company. In addition to the discomfort of being the center of attention, his birthday is also unsettling because it makes him consider his experiences, accomplishments, and doubts at that point in time. “When I was 29, I was basically dreading it for the whole year,” Stewart says. “Like this is the last year of my 20s. Did I do everything that I should have? Did I meet my maximum potential? Did I have all the experiences I wanted to have? There’s a reflection of your life that I think has a tendency to occur.”
Birthdays can lead people to feel a range of emotions, from contemplative or sad to anxious or depressed. (A depressive episode is defined as lasting at least two weeks, and the average length is around six months.) While there isn’t research on birthdays specifically, there is strong evidence that life events can trigger stress or depression, says Stewart Shankman, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Major changes such as getting married, having children, or retiring—all of which often correspond with acute periods of stress—can lead to depression.
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These events may trigger depression because they force people to examine their identity, Shankman says. When a child moves out of the house, a mother or father might reassess the parenting aspect of their identity. When someone retires, the professional aspect of their identity is altered. In the same way, birthdays can prompt us to explore how our identity has evolved. “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?” Shankman says.
Meaningful life events also elicit memories, expectations, and disappointments, says Myrna Weissman, chief of the division of epidemiology at New York State Psychiatric Institute. For example, many of Weissman’s patients have experienced depression triggered by the anniversary of a loved one’s death and the memories that accompany that date.
A birthday also comes along with expectations, as you envision a perfect day celebrating with your loved ones. The weight of those expectations, and the fallout if they aren’t met, can be upsetting. “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,” Weissman says.
Social expectations can dictate what we “should” think, when the reality is far more complex. The “shoulds,” as Shankman calls them, are challenging because in addition to dealing with the situation itself, people also grapple with why they aren’t feeling the emotions that society has determined they should (namely, being happy and social on their birthday). “If you don’t live up to the “shoulds,” it’s like a double whammy. What’s wrong with me? Why aren’t I living up to the law of the land?” Shankman says.
But the “shoulds” are a social construct. It’s natural to have a range of experiences and emotions, and none are definitively right or wrong. Of course, social media can exacerbate the emphasis on curating a perfect birthday. “Especially nowadays, with the popularity of self-celebration through social media and the self-branding that occurs, it’s even more uncomfortable,” Stewart says of his experience.
A few strategies can help navigate birthday stress, Shankman says. One is to think about the event ahead of time and write down your thoughts, expectations, and concerns. Putting those thoughts into words can adjust how you view the event. A second is to avoid being alone on your birthday, no matter how antisocial you're feeling. Spending time with people you trust or love can help you cope with the day—or even enjoy it.
You can also consider the different possibilities that worry you and create a plan to address each one, Weisman says. If you’re worried that members of your family will forget to give you a call, reach out in advance and remind them about your birthday. If you’re worried about fixating on upsetting thoughts, plan an activity that will keep you busy and distracted.
Stewart now approaches his birthday as an opportunity for reflection. Sadness surfaces on April 12, but he leverages those emotions to reflect on the past and how he can grow in the year ahead. “I’ve been able to convert that feeling into a valuable day of thought rather than just dread it,” he says. “I try to take a step back from myself and say are you taking care of yourself, your mind, and your body? Are you creating balance? For me, that’s the silver lining.”
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