There's nothing more cathartic than a good cry. Yep, turning on the waterworks can do wonders for your mood.
But what happens when the tears just won't flow even if you're sad or grieving?
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If trying to shed a tear is like squeezing blood from a stone, you might be wondering what's up and whether to be concerned.
Here, Jodie Skillicorn, DO, a holistic psychiatrist and author of Healing Depression Without Medication: A Psychiatrist's Guide to Balancing Mind, Body, and Soul, explains what might be stopping you from a therapeutic sob session, plus how to release your feelings in a healthy way (because bottling them up can harm your health).
First, Here's Why Crying Is Good for You
"Crying is one of our body's natural ways to release emotions and even toxins," Dr. Skillicorn says.
Indeed, some studies show that tears triggered by emotional responses contain hormones and neurotransmitters that help the body relieve stress, she says.
One specific hormone found in tears is called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). When you're stressed, your pituitary gland produces ACTH, which in turn signals the adrenal glands to make cortisol, Dr. Skillicorn says.
Cortisol then triggers the release of glucose into the bloodstream, giving your body immediate access to energy to help you manage stressful situations (think: fight or flight), Dr. Skillicorn explains.
While the fight-or-flight response is essential in an emergency, many people are stuck in this state of perpetual stress. But "if it's not turned off, it can lead to chronic inflammation and disease," Dr. Skillicorn says.
"When we cry, however, ACTH gets released in the tears, which means less in the body," Dr. Skillicorn says. And that translates to a decrease in cortisol as well.
In other words, crying "basically diffuses the feedback loop, so that you're not stuck in fight-or-flight, or at the very least, it lessens the impact," she says.
7 Reasons You're Not Able to Cry
1. You’re Repressing Your Emotions
Many of us push down difficult emotions, trying to avoid the discomfort of feeling them fully.
"I don't think anyone intentionally represses emotions, so much as children learn that it is not acceptable to express emotional states whether by directly being punished, yelled at or shamed for crying, or indirectly learning it is not OK through modeling by the parents," Dr. Skillicorn says.
But bottling up your feelings can take a terrible toll on your health.
"Research tells us that not crying and repressing emotions are associated with all kinds of chronic health issues, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and cancer," Dr. Skillicorn says.
2. You Feel Pressured to 'Stay Strong'
"Again, this is one of the messages so many of us receive in childhood," Dr. Skillicorn says.
We often learn that it's not OK to cry because it makes us weak, unsafe or "unmanly."
"These messages get passed on [from generation to generation] by parents, teachers, peers, the media and other authority figures," Dr. Skillicorn says.
And we come to accept them as truths, leaving us to feel bad for feeling — let alone expressing — emotions, she says.
But feeling sadness and shedding tears are perfectly normal ways to communicate emotions. And if we habitually stunt our feelings to stay strong, "we can get stuck in unrelenting depressive or anxious states, or even develop chronic disease," Dr. Skillicorn says.
3. You’ve Internalized the Idea That Crying Isn’t Helpful
Did your parents let you "cry it out" when you were little? This common technique for training babies to sleep in their cribs — the premise is that eventually the child will learn to put themselves to sleep — could have a long-lasting effect on your ability to cry as a grown-up.
That's because "what the kid has really learned is that nobody is going to come" to assist them, Dr. Skillicorn says. And this results in "a state of learned helplessness and an internalization of the lesson that crying is ineffective and a waste of time and energy," she explains.
"Mix this in with perhaps being shamed or yelled at when you cry, and it becomes pretty obvious why that kid will grow up to become an adult who will not feel comfortable crying or expressing emotions," Dr. Skillicorn adds.
The problem is, this cripples a person's ability to manage emotions like stress, sadness, grief or pain.
Put another way: "There is no release valve," Dr. Skillicorn says. "And over time, there is bound to be an 'explosion' of some kind," she says.
While it might manifest emotionally, it might also surface as something physical like high blood pressure, dysregulated glucose, hormonal or neurotransmitter imbalances, autoimmunity, heart disease or even cancer, Dr. Skillicorn says.
"The body is always speaking, and when we do not listen to the whispers, it will shout louder and louder," she adds.
4. You’re 'In Your Head' and Disconnected From Your Feelings
Perhaps the biggest hindrance to expressing emotions is "our society's over-reliance and overvaluing of our mind and cognition," Dr. Skillicorn says.
"'I think therefore I am' has been the Western motto since Descartes, and so we have come to feel more comfortable thinking about our problems, cognitively trying to understand our feelings, rather than just feeling them," Dr. Skillicorn explains.
The result: We have become "increasingly disconnected from our bodies, where our emotions are actually held and experienced," she says.
"It is also important to reiterate, however, that people are not choosing to disconnect, but rather have learned to disconnect to protect themselves from abuse, trauma, shaming, scolding, etcetera," Dr. Skillicorn says.
That's to say, sometimes people must detach from feelings to survive and feel safe.
5. You’re Depressed
"Depression can sometimes lead to blunted emotions," Dr. Skillicorn says.
And the antidepressants used to treat depressive feelings also commonly cause the same stunting of feelings (more on this later).
But Dr. Skillicorn also argues that the reverse is true: "Disconnecting from emotional states can lead to depression."
Here's why: "Emotions are meant to move through us, and when that does not happen, we get stuck," she says.
Think of it like a pot of boiling water. "When there's a lid on the pot, the pressure will build and build until the water finally explodes out over the edges," Dr. Skillicorn says.
"We all know that taking the lid off relieves the pressure," she says.
And it's the same with emotions. "If we avoid and repress our emotions, the pressure builds and, at some point, must be expressed," Dr. Skillicorn says.
"The explosion could manifest as anxiety, panic, mania or even psychosis if the body's fight-or-flight system takes over, but it could also lead to a freeze state like depression," she explains.
"If we acknowledge the emotions or just have a good cry, it is the equivalent of removing the lid, which allows the pressure to dissipate and soften," Dr. Skillicorn adds.
6. You’re Taking Certain Medications
Some medicines such as antidepressants can curb your capacity for crying or make you feel numb emotionally.
"This is unfortunately all too common," Dr. Skillicorn says. "I have heard countless stories of women who tell me they could not even cry at a loved one's funeral because of their medications."
"Studies show that even a single dose of an SSRI [i.e., selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which are commonly prescribed antidepressants] can reduce crying and tears," Dr. Skillicorn says.
"Although this may at times be desirable, it's important to remember that when we disconnect from sadness, we also disconnect from joy," she says.
If you have a concern about your antidepressants, don’t just stop taking them cold turkey. Discontinuing these drugs without proper medical guidance can be dangerous. Always consult with your doctor first, who can discuss your options and help you wean off your medications safely.
7. You Have an Underlying Medical Condition
Believe it or not, certain health conditions can make it increasingly difficult for you to shed tears.
For example, medical problems such as dry eye, Sjogren's syndrome, allergic eye disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, graft vs. host disease, sarcoidosis, thyroid disorders or vitamin A deficiency can affect tear production, according to the Mayo Clinic.
That means they can prevent you from producing enough water to make tears.
How to Open Up and Express Emotions
"So many of us resist crying because we want to avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings," Dr. Skillicorn says. "Yet if we lean in, listen, acknowledge our feelings and face the momentary discomfort, the emotions move through us as they are meant to do, and afterwards we feel freer, more spacious and better," she says.
Here, Dr. Skillicorn shares strategies on how to cry, or at least to express and release your emotions in a healthy manner.
1. Reconnect With Your Body
"To reconnect with emotions, we must reconnect with the body," Dr. Skillicorn says.
So, what does that look like? "If you are feeling sad, be curious as to where you are holding that sadness in your body," she says.
Ask yourself: Where do I feel tension or restriction? "Perhaps you feel it in your chest, in your throat, in your head or even behind your eyes," Dr. Skillicorn says. "These are all places that people commonly feel, not think about, but feel sadness," she adds.
"Once you locate the areas of tension, stay there for a moment and be curious about the sensation," Dr. Skillicorn says. Does it have a shape, a texture, a color or a sound? Is it shallow or deep?
"Imagine breathing into that space, and as you exhale, invite some of the tension to release with the breath," Dr. Skillicorn says. "You could even ask this area of the body what it needs — perhaps you get a response, perhaps you do not — but the body appreciates being asked," she says.
Pay attention to what happens as you do this. Can you feel a shift? "Often just by acknowledging the emotions and what they feel like in the body, we can create a softening and space," Dr. Skillicorn says.
"This may take a bit of practice, however, if it is new to you, so do not give up," she adds.
2. Pay Attention to Your Thoughts
"We can also be curious about what thoughts arise as we tune into the body and emotions," Dr. Skillicorn says. Notice any thoughts about the feelings you're having.
Sometimes we tell ourselves "stories" about these emotions that may or may not be true, Dr. Skillicorn says. For instance, you may find your mind telling you that crying makes you weak.
"Journal about these 'stories' and where and when you first learned that it was 'not OK' to cry," Dr. Skillicorn says. "If you find resistance, simply be curious about that," she says. What does it feel like? Where is it held in the body?
Just be open to discovering without judgment, Dr. Skillicorn says.
3. Talk to a Therapist
Opening up to feel and express uncomfortable feelings is hard work, and you don't have to do it alone.
"If this is something that you have been struggling with for a long time, finding a therapist to support and help you reconnect may be a good place to start," Dr. Skillicorn says.
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