Whether it's a sweet veteran-returns-home-to-elated-dog video or a bad fight with your partner, all sorts of everyday events can trigger the urge to cry, says James Rodriguez, PhD, LCSW, director of trauma-informed services at the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.
The event that triggers the urge to cry doesn't have to be a negative experience, Rodriguez says — people cry out of joy as well as anxiety, sadness and grief. In any case, crying can occur when our brain activates our body's stress response.
There's very little research on the act of not crying, but many of us are familiar with the sensations that accompany holding back tears: tightness in the chest, a lump in your throat, a sudden headache. Still, we do know a bit about what happens in the body before the onset of tears. Here's what happens throughout your body in the moments prior to the tears making their presence known.
Your Brain Registers Stress
After a potentially tear-inducing event occurs, our stress response starts its work in the amygdala, the gray matter inside the brain responsible for the perception of emotions.
The amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which communicates to the rest of the body to act accordingly. It tells the pituitary gland that there's danger (or stress), which triggers the gland to release the adrenocorticotropic hormone, per Harvard Health Publishing. This hormone then travels to the adrenal gland, located right above the kidneys, causing them to release cortisol, that infamous stress hormone.
While all of this is happening, the hypothalamus has also activated the sympathetic nervous system, Rodriguez says; this part of your nervous system controls the body functions that get triggered in a fight-or-flight response, per the Merck Manual.
Your Heart Speeds Up
As the brain reacts to stress, the sympathetic nervous system will speed up both your heart rate and the contractions of your heart muscle.
"In addition, the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart dilate, thereby increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and elevating blood pressure," according to the American Psychological Association.
Your Breathing May Change
When you're hit with a stress-filled moment, you might experience shortness of breath and rapid breathing. This happens as the airway between the nose and lungs tighten.
People with pre-existing respiratory conditions, like asthma, may be more at risk for breathing problems when experiencing stress. A significant stressful experience, like the death of a close family member, increased the risk of an asthma attack in children with asthma by nearly twofold, per an oft-cited November 2007 study in Brain, Behavior and Immunity.
Your Muscles React
In response to stress, the rapid release of hormones throughout the body sends extra blood to the muscles. The effect is perhaps easier to picture when a physical stressor poses a threat: Your body may quickly act to get out of the path of a biker even before you feel you've consciously registered the cyclist coming your way.
How Does Crying — or Not Crying — Come Into Play?
In order to return back to balance from the fight-or-flight response, your body's parasympathetic nervous system — the part of your nervous system that handles body processes during routine, stress-free moments, per the Merck Manual — must be activated. "There are emotional and physiological ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring the body back to some level of homeostasis," Rodriguez says.
Research shows that crying may very well help your body return to a steady, stable state after the fight-or-flight moment. Crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping the body to rest and return to homeostasis, per a May 2014 overview of the scientific literature about the self-soothing effects of crying published in Frontiers of Psychology.
Suppressing the act of crying, then, may prevent the body from returning to its balanced state.
It can be OK to suppress crying temporarily (more on this later), but your body will remain in a stress response, Rodriguez says. "We know that a body that is chronically exposed to stress has long-term negative outcomes," Rodriguez notes.
Chronic stress is associated with an increased risk for a host of health problems, including heart disease, anxiety, depression, obesity, digestive problems and memory and concentration impairment, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Why People Suppress Tears
Despite these risks, many people believe they should resist the urge to cry, and for many different reasons.
"There are different norms around crying across cultures," Rodriguez says. For instance, American women cry 3.5 times each month while American men cry approximately 1.9 times each month, according to a September 2010 study in Cognition and Emotion. Women in China cry 1.4 times each month (less frequently than both American men and women), per the research.
There are endless disparities in our socialization around crying, which many cultures view as a sign of fragility.
"Young males of color are given the message to be strong and tough, and [are told that] crying is a sign of weakness," Rodriguez explains. "Those kinds of messages can contribute to that constant exposure to stress that can keep someone in that state of activation during stressful times."
How to Safely Hold Back Tears
Despite the risks for chronic stress, Rodriguez admits that the taboos around crying — especially when done in the workplace and other situations when showing emotion is deemed inappropriate — aren't going anywhere anytime soon. There are, however, healthy ways to help the body activate its parasympathetic nervous system and return to balance. These techniques rely on rerouting the release elsewhere.
Try a Thought-Stopping Technique
One way to keep from crying in the moment is to use thought-stopping methods, Rodriguez says. You might try "putting a stop sign up cognitively in your mind" to signal to the brain that it's time to pause this reaction, he suggests.
Another cognitive trick is to give in to "acceptance of the feeling," Rodriguez says. You can say to yourself, "I want to cry now, but I can't," and give yourself permission to do so in a place you feel more comfortable.
Take Some Deep Breaths
Deep breathing can sometimes activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which will help relax the body without the waterworks.
Tense Up Even More
Rather than attempting to counteract the sympathetic nervous system, you might try strengthening it. Tensing up your muscles, tightening your jaw and clenching your fists can amplify your stress response, Rodriguez says, which can make you feel more confident and in control (and less likely to cry).
Where to Go From Here
Figuring out how to hold back the tears in a moment of stress is only half of the equation.
Rodriguez describes the tips above as "short-term hacks;" they work in the moment, but they're not a sustainable way to manage stress. If you don't address the stress head-on, you run the risk of staying in that hyperactive state for too long.
"The body needs to have releases," Rodriguez says. The release doesn't have to be crying in the moment or even crying after-the-fact. Healthy releases can include proven-stress busters like exercise, meditation or a conversation with a loved one.
Without these, people are more likely to turn to unhealthy releases (like substance abuse) and increase their risk for the conditions associated with chronic stress.
Is This an Emergency?
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Understanding the stress response"
- American Psychological Association: "Stress Effects on the Body"
- Brain, Behavior and Immunity: "Stress and Inflammation in Exacerbations of Asthma"
- Frontiers of Psychology: "Is crying a self-soothing behavior?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Stress management"
- Cognition and Emotion: "Crying and Mood Change: a Cross-Cultural Study"
- Journal of Consumer Research: "From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation"
- Merck Manual: "Overview of the Autonomic Nervous System"