Birthdays are generally depicted in the media as happy events that should be celebrated. However, for no small number of people birthdays can be complicated and evoke difficult feelings such as sadness, listlessness and even feelings of depression. Why is this?
The ‘birthday blues’ is a term used to capture the range of difficult emotions that some people experience around birthdays. They often come on in the lead up to a birthday, peaking on the actual day and then quickly dissipating, at times with a sense of relief.
There is no single clinical reason why people may feel down or depressed on their birthday and nor is it a pathology but rather a combination of association and arguably somatic memory. Let me explain.
Whilst we all have seen images heard stories or seen films depicting ‘the perfect birthday’ for children, for most of us this was not the case, but overall we enjoyed the day because we were allowed to celebrate it with those we love. However in many cases this simply is not so. For example, for children of divorced parents birthdays can be difficult as the loss of one of the parents may be highlighted on that ‘special day’. As a clinician this is something I encounter often with clients whose parents divorced acrimoniously – they wanted nothing more than to spend the day with both parents but can’t. Worse still I have encountered stories whereby my clients as children had to choose between their parents as to with whom they were going to spend their birthday. The outcome was that birthdays become something to dread rather than eagerly anticipate.
So, birthdays can represent a marker date (not dissimilar to Christmas) – a reminder – of a painful event which is compounded by the societal expectation of how a person should feel. This creates an internal conflict between the felt reality and how that person actually feels, which exacerbates the problem and can lead to symptoms of depression.
Why are birthdays so important to so many people?
Human beings are defined by time. We did not invent it as it passes whether we are aware of it or not, however, we structure our lives around time and use it not only as an important guide in terms of the passing of the seasons but also in measuring our time on this earth.
Birthdays are seen as something to celebrate as an achievement which may seem somewhat arbitrary in the modern world, however in a world in which infant mortality was rampant and few people lived beyond their forties – which constituted much of human existence – there was arguably much to celebrate in living another year.
However, I believe that there is something else that sits beneath this explanation that operates on an unconscious level and that is how birthdays represent an overcoming of death. It could be argued that becoming yet another year older is nothing to have a party about – especially once we have passed our youth. Birthdays mark the passage of time and bring us ever closer to death – something us humans have a hard time dealing with. So by marking birthdays and celebrating them, we are perhaps avoiding contemplating our mortality. They function in part as a form of
Like the actual new year, birthdays are psychologically and thus symbolically representative of an opportunity for renewal – we can put the bad or mediocre of the past year behind us and start another year with good intentions. Sadly, like new year’s resolutions, little generally changes following birthdays as we take our old selves with us into the ‘new year’.
Is there any physical reason why people would feel differently on their birthday?
From a medical perspective, there is no reason why anyone would feel differently on their birthday, however, as noted earlier, birthdays can evoke powerful memories that may be pleasant, difficult, or a combination of both.
We know from neuroscientist and Professor of Psychiatry Steven Porges’ work on Polyvagal Theory that our neural network extends to our gut and that we receive significantly more ‘data’ from our gut to our brain via the vagal nerve than the other way around. It therefore stands to reason that where we have powerful memories associated with a significant date, that we will feel and possibly experience those memories in our body too. How may these manifest?
Some people may feel lethargic or achy and others may have headaches or migraines in lieu of experiencing the actual feelings – and this is particularly likely in cases where there is a conflict between how the person feels, and how they believe they should feel based on social or family expectations.
How can people start to think differently about their birthday?
When I was a trainee psychotherapist, one of my tutors would say ‘if you feel stuck with a client, find the feeling’. Ultimately psychotherapy is about grieving – what clients grieve will vary, but they are coming to grieve whether they know it or not.
If birthdays have in the past been difficult and remain so in the present then there is something that has not been grieved. For example, where a client began to dislike their birthday or even dread it due to a family event such as parental divorce, and that feeling repeats in their adult life, then I would suggest that there are feelings relating to that loss of the parental unit that remain unresolved. Once these have been worked through, birthdays will be ‘freed up’ so a different meaning and set of memories can be ascribed to them.
So, the first step is in grieving whatever needs to be grieved and then the second step is in recognising that a birthday is largely symbolic and that as an adult we can take control of them and take responsibility for creating of them what we wish. The latter is critically important as it may be that one person’s idea of a ‘good’ birthday is a full-on bash with friends whilst another is a quiet walk in the woods. Both are equally valid.
Are birthdays as important as people think?
Human beings are symbolic and are unique (as far as we know) in world of mammals in that we are the only creatures that inhabit a symbolic world. The majority of what we do, create and celebrate has no pragmatic purpose, however that does not mean that it is not important.
The symbolic is the basic fabric of culture and we all subscribe to a culture, as it is through culture that we gain our sense of belonging and self esteem. Culture (whichever one you happen to belong to) gives us three fundamental stories which enable us to cope with death anxiety according to psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who was one of Freud’s acolytes – culture tells us where we came from, how to behave whilst we are alive and lastly, it tells us what happens to us when we die. Without culture, we have very little.
Birthdays are symbolic and embedded in culture thus they are important in us being a part of the world in which we live. However, particularly in Western Culture where we subscribe to individualism, we are free to create of our birthday whatever we wish.
I would therefore suggest that birthdays are important as all cultural markers are important, however, that does not mean that we should be indentured to them.
Are the birthday blues real?
Anything that a person feels is real, as it is their felt experience. This does not mean, however, that that feeling or set of feelings belong in the present. Nor does it mean that the ‘birthday blues’ are a pathology but rather a term that helps us makes sense of what someone may be experiencing.
If people are habitually getting the ‘birthday blues’ which is a set of difficult feelings akin to depression, then something from the past has got ‘stuck’ and is repeating as an experience each year.
A psychotherapist would work with you to uncover what it is that brings on these ‘blues’ around the time of your birthday and to work with you to resolve the underlying grief or address what it is in your appetite for life that is being suppressed.
Can birthday blues ever be a good thing?
Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive, it can be helpful to be curious about how we really feel around our birthday and to work out whether those feelings are perhaps telling us something important.
It’s no secret that in my profession the peak time for couple’s therapy enquiries is in early January (the same is true of a family solicitor friend of mine). This I believe is in no small part to the pressures of family Christmas being combined with a new year and a desire for new beginnings.
Birthday blues can also be a sign that something in a person’s life needs addressing and perhaps changing. Birthdays are a reminder of the passage of time and can increase feelings of anxiety when deep down a person knows they are not really living the life they want to.
If we can be curious about them, birthday blues can tell us important information about what we may want or what is missing from our life. And if you can’t make sense of it, it can be really helpful to talk to a psychotherapist who can help you unpick what the blues might mean – whether that is a loss that needs to be grieved or an appetite that needs to be expressed.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
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