You know that old saying, "The only constant in life is change"? Though it doesn't exactly comfort me (when you have anxiety, a lack of control, and constant transitions are daunting), I can't deny its validity, especially when it comes to the ebb and flow of stress. A few months ago, when I was moving across the country, I found myself needing to cry about once a week, which is much more frequent than I was used to. I couldn't figure out why my tolerance for stress was so much lower and why I could go from feeling totally fine to wanting to burst into tears. In a word, I was frustrated and did my best to will it away. It didn't work, of course.
So after a really good hard cry, something shifted, and I decided to confront the issue. At first, I had been concerned that it was indicative of a deeper problem, but after some research and overdue self-reflection, I realized it was actually a completely normal reaction to my circumstances, and it wouldn't be like this forever. Here's the thing: We often talk about crying as a sign of weakness, a sign of one's inability to deal. And as disorienting as a blubbering cry can be—particularly in the eerily calm, puffy-eyed aftermath—it's also a healthy step in dealing with external stressors.
My life had been chaotic, and I wasn't fully acknowledging the chaos, so it was manifesting itself in bouts of crying and was actually giving physical expression to the unrest. Without the emotional release, I probably would've combusted instead of having this chance to learn how to better manage stress and listen to my body when my mind isn't totally willing to go there yet.
Now, a few months later, I reached out to Carol Tuttle, author of The Child Whisperer and CEO and founder of Live Your Truth, to get more insight into stress crying. If this sounds familiar, read on to learn about why we cry when we're overwhelmed, how to better cope in the actual moment of distress, and how to manage your stress better moving forward.
Why We Cry When We're Stressed
"When we are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, disappointed, discouraged, or sad about a loss, crying is actually a release of emotional energy. It helps clear the brain from being emotionally flooded," Tuttle assured me.
Crying signals to yourself and other people that there’s some important problem that is at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope.
As Jonathan Rottenberg, an emotion researcher and professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, tells Time, "Crying signals to yourself and other people that there’s some important problem that is at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope." Other research suggests that crying is basically our nervous system's response to an overload of stimuli and an effort to self-soothe and recalibrate our emotional baselines.
Let's say you lost something important in the morning, you have the looming thought of needing to pay your bills tonight, you haven't had any time to talk with a family member or friend, and you miss your train or someone steals the parking spot you really needed to be on time for your appointment. On their own, these are just normal, minor inconveniences, but the accumulated stress is enough to make you cry, and that's okay. It's also okay to just laugh it off and hope that tomorrow is a better day. The important thing is to react honestly.
What to Do in the Moment
"First, stop apologizing for healthy tears," Tuttle reminds us. It's important not to shame yourself for being emotional. "If you prefer to be more private with your healthy crying experience, tell yourself you are going to give yourself a chance to cry about it later when you have more privacy," she suggests. This tip ended up being a huge game-changer for me. I realized that crying by myself was ultimately more productive, as I was able to fully process without worrying about the judgment of others, whether or not it was real or perceived. On the other hand, if you have a friend who is crying, do your best to validate and support them, as social connection can be really soothing.
The other important thing to keep in mind while you're in the middle of a crying episode is that it doesn't feel good, and that physical lack of control and comfort might be making you even more upset than what triggered the tears. Crying from stress can quickly escalate and enhance our senses, and this perceived permanence of discomfort is alienating. It helps to remember you aren't going to be crying forever; when you're done crying, you might actually notice that you feel a lot better. At the very least, you will probably be more in touch with your headspace than you were before.
How to Navigate the Aftermath
To be fair, it's important to acknowledge that not all crying spells are the same. We all have different boiling points, too, so what's normal for me isn't going to be normal for you and the other way around. For example, consistent crying episodes can be a result of unaddressed anxiety and depression, both of which benefit from treatment plans and professional support.
For me, it helps to consider what else is going on in my life when I'm crying. Did I just undergo a major life change? As much as I want to hurry up and fast-forward to the calm after the storm, I can't, and the best alternative is to ride it out as best I can. (Having some tools can help make that seem less daunting, like friends and self-care habits.) Next, I look at my habits and lifestyle. Are my basic needs being met? Oftentimes, I find that I've been crying from stress because I haven't had the time to eat three healthy meals a day, I haven't had enough socialization in the day, and I need to catch up on sleep. This is a good reality check that helps me see how important it is to take care of myself first and foremost.
Finally, I ask myself if there are any other symptoms accompanying the tears, and if I am still able to find moments of joy in between. If I am, then it's probably just a sign of temporary stress that will eventually pass. But in the meantime, I need to do as much as I can to take care of myself and do things that make me feel content and connected.
Gracanin A, Bylsma LM, Vingerhoets AJJM. Is Crying a Self-Soothing Behavior? Front Psychol. 2014;5:502. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00502
Does Someone You Love Have Serious Anxiety or Depression? Cleveland Clinic. April 13, 2020