Do you have the 'birthday blues'? Mental health experts explain why you might feel sad on your special day — and how to improve your mood.

Feeling depressed about your big day? Mental health experts explain why some people experience the birthday blues.
Feeling depressed about your big day? Mental health experts explain why some people experience the "birthday blues." (Getty Images)

Have you ever watched your birthday inch closer on the calendar with a feeling of persistent dread? Have you woken up on your special day with the sudden urge to crawl back into bed? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, experts say there are plenty of reasons your brain may feel a bit bummed on this celebratory day.

"Birthdays can be complicated emotionally,” psychologist Natasha Trujillo tells Yahoo Life. She adds that the occasions remind us of the passage of time and “what we won't get back.” Too often, we view years gone by as “lost” or “wasted” if they don’t measure up to societal expectations of accomplishment.

Here’s what else mental health experts have to say about what's behind the very real phenomenon of the “birthday blues." Read on to learn more about the causes, with tips on how to move past those feelings — and maybe even celebrate a little.

There can be a few factors contributing to feelings of disappointment, loss or sadness when a birthday rolls around. These include:

Licensed psychologist Michele Leno explains that being bummed on a birthday is especially common among “those who resist change and/or aging." She explains, "We associate age with words like 'old' and 'washed up,' when in fact, a person can thrive at any age.” Resistance to aging is typically culturally driven, as we subconsciously “allow others to dictate how we should feel and behave at every step of aging,” Leno adds.

When turning another year older, people often “scrutinize their lives through a critical lens, inviting the inner critic to surface,” licensed clinical psychologist Kanchi Wijesekera tells Yahoo Life. This can cause “feelings of inadequacy, perceiving a gap between their accomplishments and envisioned milestones,” she explains.

If you previously imagined you’d have a certain job or relationship situation at the age you’re about to turn, you may end up criticizing yourself for not hitting that mark yet. The pervasive culture of comparison — which social media amplifies — can make that self-criticism feel even harsher. “If you feel less accomplished ‘for someone your age,’ your anxiety may heighten around your birthday,” adds Leno. “There's a sense of running out of time.”

You might also feel bummed on your birthday because it’s no longer what it once was (for the lucky ones among us, at least): a carefree, cake-laden celebration of being a kid. And even if your childhood birthdays weren’t idyllic, the culture that surrounds the holiday and expectations we set for ourselves to have the Best Day Ever can set us up to fail. “High expectations for a perfect day can lead to feelings of inadequacy when reality doesn't match up,” explains licensed psychotherapist Kristie Tse.

Of course, plenty of people’s childhoods missed the carefree birthday blueprint entirely. “Children who grew up in traumatic and stressful environments may have learned from a young age to associate their birthday with stress, inconvenience and unimportance — and that can be difficult to shake,” clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist Jessica McCarthy tells Yahoo Life.

If you’ve lost a loved one with whom you used to spend special days like this, the recurrence of your own birthday can compound your feelings of grief. “It’s crucial to recognize how past traumatic experiences can exacerbate birthday blues,” says Wijesekera. “I've worked with clients who experienced this, as their birthdays served as poignant reminders of lost loved ones, intensifying feelings of loneliness and triggering thoughts about mortality.”

Of course, completely kicking the birthday blues is a big ask, and experts say that you shouldn’t set yourself up for disappointment by thinking there’s an easy cure for your mood. That said, there is plenty you can do to move your bummed-out brain in a better direction.

Acknowledge — don’t ignore — your feelings. If you’re sad about your birthday, don’t pressure yourself to snap out it. Shoving down or bottling up your feelings of disappointment or anxiety is only going to backfire. Instead, McCarthy says to “pay attention to your thoughts and emotions about the day — what is your brain’s default when you think about your birthday? What emotions do you experience?” She adds that “if we try to ignore or avoid it, the thoughts and emotions tend to get stronger and more distressing and disruptive.”

Celebrate simply. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by trying to do too much. Instead, set realistic expectations and plan something simple but meaningful. Tse advises lining up some “activities that bring joy [and] self-care,” whether that’s scheduling a massage or planning a leisurely hike.

Don’t go it alone. You don’t have to throw yourself a party if that stresses you out. What about just grabbing dinner with a couple of friends? “Surrounding oneself with friends and loved ones can serve as a useful reminder that we are cared for, life can still be enjoyed and that this is an opportunity to create new memories,” says Dr. Cooper Stone. And if you’re feeling anxious, be honest about it. “Tell people exactly how you are feeling and what you are hoping for,” advises psychologist Reena B. Patel. “Don't let them guess if you have something specific in mind or are hopeful the day will look a certain way.”

Slow down. Even just 10 minutes of meditation on your birthday morning can work wonders. “It can be helpful to gently remind ourselves to live in the present through mindfulness practices and to not let our past dictate our future,” says Stone.

Think thankful. “Focus on the positive aspects of birthdays,” says Leno. “Consider what you love about your life and how the ability to age has helped. Viewing your birthday as a win represents a more positive outlook.” Patel even suggests creating a “bliss list” where you chronicle all the things you're grateful for. “It is a really great self-reflection tool that can outline a lot of good in your life,” she says.

Practice self-compassion. Wijesekera explains that cultivating compassion for yourself is “a powerful science-backed remedy for the harsh self-criticism often associated with birthday blues.” What’s self-compassion, exactly? It’s giving yourself a break — even when you don’t measure up to your own goals. Wijesekera adds that, “unlike self-esteem, which falters in the face of inadequacies and shortcomings, self-compassion offers kindness and understanding when we need it most.”

Birthdays are complicated, and they can bring up a lot of opposing emotions. But how we navigate — or fail to acknowledge — those complex emotions is what makes or breaks those birthday blues. “With the right tools and open mindset,” explains McCarthy, “we can create a gentle shift in perspective that leads to, hopefully, a better experience of the day.”