The Straight Answer on Crying 'For No Reason'

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional
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Why do we cry?

You would think by now that we’d know a thing or two about the function of crying. We certainly know the kinds of situations and circumstances in which people shed tears, but as to understanding the actual role or roles of crying -- well, that depends on who you talk to.

There’s a difference between shedding tears and crying. We shed tears naturally in order to lubricate the eyes and we’ve probably all experienced involuntary tears on a windy day. Crying is different. Crying is linked to our emotional state, whether because of humor, frustration, grief, anger, pain or hunger (think when babies cry).

When we cry, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This means our heart rate increases, our breathing is disrupted, we perspire more and we get that characteristic lump in the throat. But what’s it all for?

Lorna Collier , writing for the American Psychological Association, cites the biochemist William H. Frey, who established gender differences in crying. Women, Frey states, cry on average 5.3 times a month against the average of 1.3 times for men. Crying in this context ranges from moist eyes to sobbing. It’s possible that testosterone inhibits crying in men, while the increased levels of the hormone prolactin in women promotes it. That said, we can’t ignore cultural issues. Men are still socialized into a world where crying is viewed as weakness.

Crying as healing

The notion of crying as an agent of healing or emotional release is well established. Having a good blub after failing your driving test can be a release from tension. Once we stop crying our sympathetic nervous system returns to normal. Heart rate decreases and we feel calmer physically and emotionally.

Dr. Frey claimed that the tears of "emotional crying" carried more protein, but subsequent experiments have been unable to replicate his findings. Also, the common claim that mood improves after crying has also been called into question. Collier cites Lauren Bylsma, Ph.D., who found only 30 percent of female students felt their mood had improved after crying, with 60 percent reporting no change and 9 percent saying their mood had worsened.

We still hold on to the idea that crying is good for us, but the experience of crying is highly subjective. There’s little doubt that for some people a good cry is therapeutic, while for many others crying either doesn’t seem to affect their mood, or they feel worse as a result.

Crying "for no reason"

There really is no such thing as crying for no reason. There is always a reason, but it may not be obvious. Uncontrollable and/or spontaneous crying is associated with depression, but it is unlikely to be the only issue. Crying in this context is a clear outward sign of distress. Dig a little deeper and often the less obvious things start to emerge. Feelings of worthlessness can’t be seen, and neither can a sense that control over your life is slipping between your fingers. These, however, are classic signs of depression and they should be taken seriously.

Depression is frequently accompanied by anxiety and this too can be a reason for spontaneous crying. The overwhelming emotions leading up to or following a panic attack is a case in point.

Other possible causes of crying may be stress and/or sleep related and crying spells are also common in premenstrual syndrome.

In summary, the fact that you may struggle to identify why you cry doesn’t mean someone else can’t identify it. At a psychological level the things we find hardest to deal with are the things we’re most likely to suppress. It can help to have professional support to help unravel complex emotions.

Crying isn’t a bad or harmful thing. It may even act like an emotional pressure valve. Even so, if you are "crying for no reason," my advice is to visit a health professional and get some independent advice. This may be your first step to insight, as well as a major step on the road to recovery.

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_Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net. _