Can't stop crying

Dear Alice,

Are there any techniques for controlling crying? I doubt that my problem requires clinical attention; however, it frequently manifests itself as a serious handicap. During conflicts (particularly with professional superiors or with significant others), I find myself unable to defend my position, which only makes the problem worse. Sympathy only tends to aggravate the crying and it is impossible to stop once it starts. I am a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, and I don't seem to be growing out of it. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Dear Reader,

Crying is a normal bodily function, like any other system in your body. Just like young babies cry to get the attention of their caregivers, weeping as an adult can signal that you’re in distress and assistance is needed. When you cry during conflicts, it may be that your body is telling you that it’s in distress. The type of tears you’re experiencing (yes, there’s more than one, believe it or not!) will determine how to control your tears, if any control is needed at all. Read on to learn more about the different types of tears and techniques you can use to alleviate them.

There are three major types of tears: basal tears, reflex tears, and emotional tears. The emotional tears seem to be the ones that you’re more concerned about. Emotional tears are brought about by strong emotions, such as anger, sadness, joy, or pride. These tears act like a form of emotion regulation, sending a message to your lacrimal system (the system responsible for physically producing tears) to release the waterworks.

You may have heard that crying is a cathartic experience or that crying is helpful for you when you feel sad. Some researchers believe that emotional tears contain stress hormones to help with emotional regulation and bring the body back to regular levels. Other scientists believe that the feeling of tears falling down your face acts like a mini massage and produces endorphins in your body, leading to better feelings. However, some researchers believe that the act of crying in and of itself may not be self-soothing; in fact, some report that crying by yourself may make you feel worse. So why cry at all? When you cry, it can be an indication to others to engage in helping behaviors. Those who cry among trusted support report feeling better when someone reaches out to help.

You mention that sympathy from others aggravates your crying — what are the feelings you associate with someone reaching out to help you in these situations? Do you appreciate the empathy, or do you feel shameful of sympathy? Overall, your own perceptions on crying and how to suppress your tears may also contribute to how crying makes you feel. Those who believe that crying helps to make themselves feel better tend to have more positive feelings after crying. However, if you believe that crying is shameful or is best repressed, you’ll more likely have negative feelings after crying. Those worsening feelings may exacerbate the negative emotions that contribute to your crying, thus creating the vicious cycle you mention.

There are some techniques you can try when you feel the sobbing coming on. One short-term technique that may help you in the moment is to try and distract yourself. You could direct your mind to other thoughts that may stop you from feeling overwhelmed — a recipe you want to try or a new TV show you’ve gotten into recently. Although this approach is effective, some people report not feeling better after trying to distract themselves. A more long-term approach may be to identify particular triggers that make you feel like crying and coming up with solutions for addressing those problems when they arise. You could try writing down all the situations that have elicited crying for you in the past. You may find some ways that you can express your feelings without getting choked up. Here are some examples you can use or adapt to particular situations:

  • When you feel frustrated or angry at a supervisor, imagine some potential responses, such as, "I appreciate your feedback on _____. I was hoping we could include my input in the report as well."
  • Imagine that you're with your partner and you feel yourself getting teary-eyed because you're angry or frustrated. You might try saying, "Honey, I don't agree with what you just said and I'm feeling angry. I need a minute to collect my thoughts so that we can talk about this and come to a solution."

Additionally, you may want to consider talking with a mental health professional to help bring you some relief. If you’re a college student, you may have campus counseling services available to you. For those who are unsure where to look, How to find a therapist may be a useful resource. In some cases, difficulty with crying or emotional regulation may indicate a larger mental health concern. Together you can explore your relationship with crying and come up with coping strategies for when you feel overwhelmed.

Good luck!

Last updated Mar 05, 2021
Originally published Jun 09, 2000

Can’t find information on the site about your health concern or issue?