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Why Can’t I Stop Crying?

Let’s Talk About It

January 11, 2024

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Photography by Maskot/Getty Images

Photography by Maskot/Getty Images

by Clara Siegmund

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Medically Reviewed by:

Bethany Juby, PsyD

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by Clara Siegmund

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Bethany Juby, PsyD

•••••

•••••

If you cry often or uncontrollably, it may be related to your mental health. Here’s what crying is, and some strategies for managing your tears in the moment and long-term.

Crying is a normal human reaction. And a lot of things can make us cry, whether it’s related to what’s in front of us or what’s inside of us.

Sometimes we cry because of a sad book or movie, an upsetting event, or a passing emotion.

Sometimes, crying can be a symptom of mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

Here’s the lowdown on what crying is, what it might mean if you can’t stop crying, whether crying can help you feel better, and some tips for how to calm and manage your tears — both while you’re crying and long-term.

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What is crying?

There are multiple types of crying, generally classified into three categories:

  • Basal tears: Also called “continuous tears,” these tears keep your eyes lubricated, provide them with oxygen and nutrients, and help protect them.
  • Reflex tears: These spring up when your eyes are irritated to help flush out or protect against the irritant.
  • Emotional tears: Also called “psychic tears,” emotional tears are triggered in response to emotional states or events and are usually accompanied by changes in breathing (like struggling to breathe between tears) and in facial expression.

Aside from serving different means and coming from different places, our tear types also vary in their chemical makeup.

For example, research suggests that emotional tears contain more protein than basal and reflex tears and can contain certain hormones, which may be related to the emotional release some people feel after crying.

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What does it mean if I can’t stop crying?

If you find yourself crying without any kind of irritant (think: onions, allergies, something stuck in your eye), you’re experiencing emotional tears.

Triggers for emotional tears are wide-ranging and vary from person to person. Common triggers include:

  • painful emotions, like sadness, fear, or grief
  • positive emotions, like joy, happiness, or excitement
  • feelings of empathy and compassion, like crying when someone else cries
  • distressing events, like a breakup, illness, or death
  • trauma
  • physical pain

Crying can also be a reflection of your mental health, particularly if you:

  • cry daily
  • cry for hours at a time
  • suddenly cry more often than usual
  • can’t stop crying or cry uncontrollably
  • have a hard time identifying why you’re crying

If this sounds familiar, your crying may well be a symptom of a mental health condition such as depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety.

Is depression causing my crying?

An older 2007 study looked at the frequency, causes, and results of crying in people with depression and people without depression. It found that people with depression cried more in response to negative causes. The study suggests that mental health conditions increase negative emotional crying, both in frequency and tendency.

Keep in mind, however, that not everyone with depression cries, whether frequently or at all. Crying is often thought to be more common in people with milder depression than in people with severe depression.

Some research suggests that people with certain types of depression, like anhedonic depression, may not exhibit crying as a core symptom. Other people with depression may even be unable to cry.

Crying may also be expressed differently depending on norms related to culture, gender, and emotional expression, as well as socioeconomic status and socialization. Additionally, some suggest that using crying as a symptom in depression diagnosis may introduce gender bias to the diagnostic assessment process, as crying may be more common in women than in men.

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Can crying make me feel better?

If you’ve ever felt a bit better after a good cry, you’re not alone. Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that crying may boost your mood afterward, and ongoing scientific research seems to support this.

Studies have produced various ideas about why crying may improve mood and reduce distress, including these:

  • Crying is thought to stimulate the release of endorphins (hormones that have a positive effect on mood, like serotonin and oxytocin), which help tears soothe the crier.
  • Crying increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (or PNS, one branch of the autonomic nervous system), which in turn stimulates relaxation and recovery, thereby improving mood.
  • Inhaling cool air during sobs may help cool the hypothalamus (a part of the brain that helps regulate emotion), which may boost mood.

More research is needed to better understand the mechanisms behind tears and mood improvement.

However, people with depression may not experience the feel-good function of crying to the same extent.

A 2014 literature review reports that people with depression tend to not feel a boost in mood after crying. It suggests that differences in PNS function in people with depression, both in general and post-cry, may be the cause.

More specifically, lower PNS reactivity to emotional tears could account for the lack of mood improvement. This is not to say, however, that crying is useless or that you should repress your tears anytime you feel the urge to cry.

Rather, it’s a reminder that crying may not always be followed by an improvement in mood, particularly if your crying is related to underlying mental health conditions.

Am I crying too much?

Whatever the case, there’s no such thing as too much crying — that’s important to understand. When you have tears that need to come out, let it go and let those tears flow.

Still, while it’s OK to cry, it’s also OK if you sometimes feel overwhelmed by crying and wonder if there are ways to help you cry a little bit less.

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How can I stop crying?

While it’s totally normal to cry, and it may even help you feel a bit better, sometimes you may want to stem the flow of tears.

Here are some strategies for when you want to stop crying in the moment.

  • Concentrate on your breathing: Take big, slow, deep breaths to help calm your body. Try inhaling for 4 seconds, then exhaling for 6 — lengthening your breathing as you go.
  • Relax the muscles in your face: Often, emotional tears come with tense, contorted facial muscles. By consciously relaxing those muscles, you may be able to help calm your tears.
  • Jump into some exercise: Getting your body moving can release feel-good endorphins, which may help stop your tears and boost your mood. Try doing a quick indoor activity, like jumping jacks or high knees, for a couple of minutes or as long as you can handle.
  • Drink some water: This can help get rid of that lump-in-your-throat feeling, the result of a muscular reaction to crying. Plus, drinking and swallowing can make you consciously focus on calming your face and body.

Before your crying even starts, you may be able to help yourself feel less tearful with these strategies.

  • Find a distraction: Pull out a happy book or movie, watch a funny video, listen to upbeat music, or call a friend.
  • Do an activity you enjoy: Go for a walk outside, play with a pet, do some yoga, dance — anything that makes you feel calm and reduces stress may help.
  • Let yourself fidget: Give your hands something to do, like playing with a fidget spinner or stress ball, to help your mind change focus and release nervous energy.
  • Try a grounding technique: Activate your senses by putting your hands in cool water, holding or sucking on an ice cube, or savoring the scent of a cup of tea to help interrupt the pattern of thoughts going through your mind.

How can I get help?

While strategies to help you stop your tears in a particular moment can be useful, it’s also important to address the underlying mental health issues that might be causing your crying — particularly if you feel the urge to cry often, or even constantly, and your tears seem uncontrollable.

Here are some people and places you can turn to for ways to manage crying — and get help for depression — long-term:

  • Therapy can effectively help you work through your mental health and keep depressive symptoms at bay. Your therapist can also help you develop relaxation techniques, which may make you feel more in control over your crying. Plus, your therapist can prescribe antidepressant medications if your depression needs pharmacological help, too.
  • Support groups, both in-person and online, can connect you with people who understand what you’re experiencing. These communities can effectively supplement other forms of treatment and help improve mental health.
  • Trusted loved ones can offer you additional emotional support, whether that means lending an ear so you can share what you’re feeling, helping distract you when you’re crying, or even helping with daily tasks.
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The takeaway

It’s completely human to cry. Some people, however, experience crying differently.

If you cry uncontrollably or often, or if you have a hard time identifying the reason or stopping your tears, your crying may be a symptom of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

Strategies to help stop your flow of tears — like focusing on your breathing or distracting yourself — may offer temporary relief. But sometimes, temporary relief isn’t enough.

If you suspect that your crying is related to your mental health, it may be a good idea to get help to address the underlying issue. Tools like therapy and support groups may help you manage depression and crying.

Whatever the reason behind your crying may be, you should never feel ashamed of your emotions. And remember, you don’t have to work through your tears or your mental health alone.

Medically reviewed on January 11, 2024

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About the author

Clara Siegmund

Clara Siegmund is a writer, editor, and translator (French to English) from Brooklyn, New York. She has a BA in English and French Studies from Wesleyan University and an MA in Translation from the Sorbonne. She frequently writes for women’s health publications. She is passionate about literature, reproductive justice, and using language to make information accessible.

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