Crying is a natural and beneficial bodily process that can be cathartic at times and completely overwhelming at others. So, why does crying sometimes feel like such a release, while other times all you want is to soothe the flood of emotions threatening to send you into full panic mode? Let's explore both the benefits of crying and how to stop the tears when things start feeling out of control.
Why we cry.
Scientifically, crying is beneficial because it helps to relieve pain and stuckness in the body—both emotional and physical—as well as enhancing mood by releasing endorphins and oxytocin. Endorphins and oxytocin are chemical messengers in the brain that signal soothing of emotional distress throughout one's system. The release of these chemical messengers can potentially promote better sleep quality and help relieve stress1.
Moreover, according to GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor at PsychPoint, crying can help relieve muscle tension and communicate the need for support or personal space to others.
"Crying is a natural behavior for people, and there can be different reasons why a person may cry more than others," Guarino tells mbg. "Some people are more sensitive and empathic than others, which can make them more inclined to cry. The ability to relate to their emotions and the emotions of others may make a person more likely to shed a tear than the people around them."
Corrie Fentress, LMFT, a licensed therapist at Connections Wellness Group, adds that if an individual wasn't able to develop emotional regulation as a child, they can be more susceptible to crying when overwhelmed with strong emotions. "Some people may cry more than others because they are at their emotional breaking point," she also tells mbg.
Both experts cite mental health concerns, like anxiousness, trauma, and more, as reasons for crying as well. "When people experience chronic stress, anxiety, or depression, they become less tolerant to managing external stressors and more susceptible to feeling overwhelmed by their emotions," says Fentress. This can lead to emotional or environmental triggers that overwhelm the nervous system and lead to crying.
How to stop yourself from crying.
If your crying feels out of control, there are things you can do to calm down your emotional overflow and ground yourself:
Recognize when crying is becoming unhelpful.
Trying to "stop" or "control" crying may sound intense because crying can be very healthy, but at times of deep distress or panic, managing your crying can be a form of self-care.
"If your crying spell begins to feel uncomfortable or you experience pain or panic, then the stress you are feeling may be bubbling over and causing the cry to be unhelpful and stressful," says Guarino. "Listen to what your body is telling you."
When we cry, it is not only our eyes that are reacting. Our gut, heart rate, breathing, and face muscles all respond as well. "If your gut begins to churn, your heart rate rises, or your breathing becomes labored, then you may be too overwhelmed to continue to let your cry out," Guarino suggests.
Change the environment.
If crying has been caused by an environmental trigger, it can help to remove yourself from the triggering situation and find a calmer place to regroup.
"Changing the environment can help with distracting your brain enough to quiet the overwhelming feelings you are having," Guarino says.
Once you're in a safe space, you can gently place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart and try softly repeating the affirmation "I am safe now."
Try 10-second breathing.
Excessive crying or heavy crying can put tension on the body, but Guarino says that a great way to relieve that tension and calm down your emotions is to practice 10-second breaths.
"To complete a 10-second breath, breathe in for 10 seconds, hold for three seconds, and breathe out for 10 seconds," Guarino explains. "Repeat this exercise until you feel your emotions calm and your body relax."
Use the RAIN technique.
When crying feels all-consuming or out of control, Fentress suggests turning to the RAIN technique for self-soothing.
She explains the acronym and how to do it yourself:
- R: Recognize what's happening. Name the feeling you're experiencing. Use a feeling wheel if needed.
- A: Allow whatever you are feeling to exist without judging it, trying to fix it, or ignoring it. Give yourself permission to feel the feeling.
- I: Investigate where you are experiencing emotions mentally and physically. Consider what you might need.
- N: Nurture yourself with self-compassion, reminding yourself that all feelings are temporary.
Try the TIPP method.
Another nervous-system-regulation technique Fentress suggests is the TIPP method:
- T: Temperature change. Splash cold water on your face or hold an ice cube to it. The cold temperature sends a message directly to your nervous system to start calming down.
- I: Intense exercise. Increase the heart rate to release endorphins that help improve mood.
- P: Paced breathing. Breathe in for four, hold for six, breathe out for eight seconds. This stimulates the vagus nerve to calm the nervous system and ground the mind through attention on the breath.
- P: Paired muscle relaxation. Inhale and tense a particular muscle group for five seconds; exhale slowly and relax for 10 seconds. This allows the body to relax by releasing excess tension.
"Seeking out support from a loved one can help you slow down the cry and stop it from becoming too intense," Guarino says.
And, if you have access, a therapist can help to facilitate the safe space and controlled environment that allows for expression of emotions without judgment. "A therapist also possesses the skills to teach the client how to de-escalate from overwhelming emotions by engaging the client in practice of coping strategies that calm down the nervous system," Fentress says.
Controlling it in the future.
Crying can be difficult to manage, but according to Guarino, if you know ahead of time what may trigger you, then you can develop a plan to ensure that you are aware of how your body is reacting, can come prepared whenever you know you are heading into such situations, and can respond appropriately to take care of yourself in the moment.
If you feel a big cry coming on, but it's not the appropriate moment or setting to let it out, be super gentle with yourself. Do not judge yourself for your sensitivity but mentally say to yourself, "I will express these feelings later, in a safe space." Then, you can ground yourself by placing your palm on your thigh or another part of your body and really focusing on the sensation of self-touch as a means of connection, love, and support while taking deep breaths. And if you end up crying anyway, that's OK too. You can try again next time.
Working with a mental health professional can also help with learning coping skills to manage crying behaviors. "And more importantly," Guarino adds, "they can help you find the source of the intense reactions you feel. They can help you learn skills to create emotional reactions that are appropriate for the situation and find the core of your triggers to teach you how to make peace with them and eventually manage them in a healthier way."
Crying is a therapeutic, natural bodily process—but there are times when it can feel like you're being knocked down by a large wave and you're too overwhelmed to get up. In these cases, learning to self-soothe and regulate your emotions is invaluable.
Georgina Berbari is a multidisciplinary artist focusing on photography and writing. Through these mediums, she creates works exploring the human body, sexuality, nature and psychology. Her work has been featured in the Hecksher Museum of Art on Long Island, ZEUM Magazine, Women’s Health, Bustle, SHAPE, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. She is a Master's graduate of the creative writing program at Columbia University and a Yoga Alliance RYT-200 yoga and meditation instructor.