A few years back, when Ishita Das (24), was about to turn 20, her friends organised a surprise birthday party for her. They did all the taam-jhaam and were ready to celebrate her, but Das didn’t show up.
Instead, because her mother had already given her a heads-up about the party, Das avoided it at all costs, switched off her phone, went to a park, and cried her eyes out.
A journalist by profession, Das loved her birthday growing up, but now she doesn’t just have an aversion to it, but ends up crying every year on it too.
But aren’t birthdays supposed to be exciting?
Then why this anxiety around them? Turns out, this is more common than you’d like to think.
Too Much Pressure On One Day
Varsha Singh (23), a media professional, has cried on more birthdays than she can remember. For her, it’s too much pressure on 'just one day' of the year to be this grand day.
"There are such high expectations from other people for me to enjoy my birthday that it affects me. People start texting ‘Oh your birthday is coming’ and it gets to me."Varsha Singh
And it’s not just that. She adds, “It’s a little tiring too. You get like 50 calls on your birthday and the very next day, it’s all back to normal?!”
Report Card of The Year Gone By
Das, on the other hand, feels that her birthday is the time of the year when a report card starts hovering over her head. All her failures and accomplishments in the year gone by are in capital letters, bold, red, and terrifying.
"I don’t want to know if I’ve evolved into a better person this year, or become the ideal person I thought I would be by this age. I hate knowing I’ve not become the person I envisioned myself to be."Ishita Das
For someone who makes birthday resolutions (instead of new year resolutions), this haunts Das all the more because she feels she’s let herself, her parents, and her younger version down.
Oddly enough, because of this immense pressure and stress, Das has seen another pattern emerge in the last few years – she always misses her periods in March, her birthday month.
Garima Shakya (23), a history graduate, nods her head in agreement. She swings between wanting to celebrate the day and wanting to be left alone, depending on whether the “what am I doing with my life?” thought gives her a visit.
And What Next Year May Bring
Dr Gorav Gupta, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist, Tulasi Healthcare, Delhi, says that it is insecurity that more often than not causes anxiety in people – along with the fear of what the next year might bring.
But most people don’t grow up hating birthdays. It’s just a part of adulting, they seem to agree. Das would thoroughly enjoy her birthdays as a kid, she recalls “having a blast.”
Now, she has a lot of theories about why she’s grown to hate her birthday:
A reminder that she’s not accomplished what she set out to (Hates gifts for the same reason, she feels she doesn’t deserve them)
A single child who’s trying to cope with the skyrocketing expectations her family has
A cycle of being miserable around her birthday week and eating unhealthy food leads her to feel bloated and unlike herself
Too much pressure to be happy and perfect
Dr Kedar Tilwe, Consultant Psychiatrist, Fortis Hospital Mulund & Hiranandani Hospital, Vashi, tells FIT:
If you think of your birthday as a day when you’ll note how far you’ve come or how much you’ve achieved/failed in the last few months, it can trigger anxiety, guilt, and worries. And if you insist on holding yourself accountable anyway, use the learnings to move forward.
Das also feels that when she moved to Shimla for a few years as a kid, she saw parties there involving elaborate planning, and this was a cultural shock for her middle-class self, something that makes her feel out of place on birthdays to date.
This festive anxiety and pressure latches on to people on other days of the year as well. Singh feels that New Year and Diwali are also times when everyone’s enjoying themselves, and it just makes her wonder if something’s wrong with her.
Dr Tilwe goes on to add that since events like these are social occasions, we invariably also end up comparing our achievements to that of our friends/peers/people in our age group, and focus exclusively on the negative bits of it.
There’s another aspect to this, Dr Tilwe feels.
"You spend days in anticipation and preparation for this one day. On the said day, there’s scrutiny on you by the people around you. This can be unsettling for people who don’t want these unwarranted comparisons. More so, since the event itself becomes a topic of discussion after its completion."
So How Do I Cope? What Doctors Say
"You have to remember that you’re celebrating yourself or the togetherness of your family and friends on these days, both of which deserve to be celebrated. Celebrating these days is a beautiful assurance that there are people who care about you, and who will be there for you whenever you need them."Dr Kedar Tilwe
But, if you still get anxious around your birthday or festivals, here are some things you can try:
Communicate your needs to the people around you and allow them to help you, give you support
Relaxation and mindfulness exercises
Reach out to counselors
Plan out your day the way you want to – hang out with fewer people or alone if that’s your thing
Lowkey Birthdays Much Better
For many like Singh, who had a pretty lowkey birthday during the pandemic, it is the new-found solution to the anxiety. Her mother made a cake at home, her father ordered another one in, they had good food, and she just enjoyed the day with her family.
Soon after, Singh realised that she didn’t hate her birthday, she just likes spending it casually – like any other normal day in her life. Going out for dinner with the people she’s close to and cutting a cake are the added cherry, but it’s the simplicity of the day that she’s started to enjoy.
It’s the expectations that overwhelm me and make me want to cry. It’s not birthdays that I hate, it’s expectations.Varsha Singh
So now, she makes it a point to spend her birthday, or any festival for that matter, only with her close-knit group.
Shakya, on the other hand, feels that she’s become lowkey on her birthdays because she doesn’t want to feel sad if the expectations she has from others go unfulfilled.