Crying when feeling sad and emotional is a usual human way to express ourselves. But when the tears come out of nowhere, they can be awkward, overwhelming, and embarrassing. So why do we cry for no reason? Is it a sign of depression, anxiety, or stress? Are there other possible reasons? And what can we do about them?
Crying might seem straightforward – we’re hurt somehow, and tears flow.
The science of crying tells us there are three different types of tears: basal tears, which are released continuously in small quantities to keep the cornea lubricated; reflex tears, shed as a response to an external irritant such as dust or chopping onions; and psychic tears which are triggered by our emotions.
While all tears contain salt water, oils, antibodies, and enzymes, psychic tears also have protein-based hormones. One of them is leucine enkephalin, a neurotransmitter that acts as a natural painkiller released by the body under stress. While we may know what we cry, many theories abound on why we cry.
Is crying a sign of depression?
Feeling tearful is a symptom of depression, as a low mood can cause people to cry more often. However, this is not the only symptom of depression.
A depression diagnosis requires a person to have experienced at least five symptoms for at least two weeks and for those symptoms to be significantly detrimental to their life or cause severe emotional distress. So, while crying could be one sign of depression, you should consider many other factors.
If you are crying for no reason but are otherwise unaffected by low mood or any other signs of depression, it’s unlikely to be the cause. The Center • A Place of HOPE has a depression test that can help you to think about whether you might be depressed.
It’s also worth considering whether tearful episodes may be related to some of the broader depressive states. For example, if you meet the criteria for depression but also experience manic episodes, this might signify you are suffering from Bipolar Depression. This is one of the ten most common types of depression with specific criteria for diagnosis and treatment options.
Or perhaps your low mood is related to the time of year. For example, Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD or seasonal depression) affects around 5% of the population but is more prevalent in women than men.
The Center • A Place of HOPE offers a highly-regarded treatment program for depression, so if you think that your tears could be a sign of depression, help is available.
Can anxiety make you tearful?
Yes, like depression, anxiety can cause crying. Anxiety is based on fear and can put our bodies into a stress response, and one of the ways in which we respond to fear and stress is by crying.
One theory for why we cry is that tears make our inner world visible to others, such as when we feel anxious. This vulnerability invites those around us to empathize with our suffering and to care for us, as the adults around us would have done when we were babies.
Another theory is that crying offers a release, and we feel better after ‘a good cry’. Several studies have proved otherwise, suggesting we feel worse after crying. However, one study concluded that any benefits to crying were not instant; improved mood took 90 minutes to surface after a tearful episode.
Considering that our bodies release a natural painkiller through our tears when we’re under stress, it would make sense that crying might occur when we’re feeling anxious. However, whether or not the tears are anxiety-related will depend on whether you have other symptoms of anxiety. The Center • A Place of HOPE‘s Anxiety Test can help you to understand a bit more about what anxiety symptoms you might be exhibiting.
It’s important to remember that healthcare professionals can diagnose anxiety and depression, so if you’re unsure which fits best with your experiences, speak to a healthcare professional. Again, treatment options for anxiety are available at The Center • A Place of HOPE.
Am I crying because of grief?
Grief is a complicated and often confusing experience we all go through at various points in our lives. Usually, grief affects us due to bereavement, whether it’s someone close to us who has died or a person we know less well. In addition, many pet owners know the grief of losing a beloved animal.
Feelings of grief can also occur without bereavement. For example, a relationship ending or a friendship being severed can cause similar feelings of loss, such as shock, disorientation, numbness, anger, denial, deep pain, or sadness.
While there is some crossover between grief and depression, the critical difference is that depression is constant, whereas grief ebbs and flows.
Processing grief can be unpredictable, and many people notice feelings can come and go quite suddenly. This may or may not fit with the Kubler-Ross model that outlines the five stages of grief, although these aren’t experienced by everyone who grieves and may appear in any order.
Crying for no reason could be caused by a resurfacing of feelings of grief, perhaps triggered by something that reminds you of the loss either consciously or subconsciously. Getting to know your triggers can be helpful.
Sharing your feelings with others can help you to process the grief, whether that’s family/friends or a professional therapist.
Am I crying because I’m lonely?
Loneliness could be related to grief, where crying alerts those around us to the inner pain we feel at losing a loved one. But loneliness is also a feeling in its own right, suggesting we may be socially isolated, and tears of loneliness may be a subconscious way of connecting with others.
Many lonely people feel shame and may try to hide their feelings. But, again, it may not be something we are consciously aware of, so the tears may feel like they betray something deeply hidden.
A third of Americans over 45 consider themselves lonely, making this an increasingly widespread problem, and there is no shame in feeling lonely. However, it’s important to address feelings of loneliness if this is the cause of your tears, as its implications go beyond mental health.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th US Surgeon General, wrote a book about loneliness called ‘Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World’. Murthy writes that “people with strong social relationships are 50% less likely to die prematurely than people with weak social relationships. Even more striking, the impact of lacking social connection on reducing lifespan is equal to the risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day; it’s greater than the risk associated with obesity, excess alcohol consumption, and a lack of exercise. Simply put, weak social connections can significantly harm our health.”
The solution? Murthy writes we need three levels of connection—intimate (partner or spouse), relational (circle of friends), and collective (community)—to avoid loneliness.
While covering all three is impossible, starting with one can benefit your mental health.
Can hormones make you cry for no reason?
Fluctuating hormones can affect mood, triggering various emotions, including tears. There are several life stages in which hormones can affect emotions.
For both sexes, puberty is a pivotal time to be aware of mood changes and physical development. Menstruation can affect hormones monthly through premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Some fluctuation across the month is typical, but if you feel your symptoms are particularly severe, it could be premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
Pregnancy can be difficult for many reasons, including the hormonal changes that occur throughout the pregnancy. As a result, some women experience the ‘baby blues’ in the days after giving birth and beyond, which can develop into Postpartum Depression, a common form of depression that affects up to 1 in 9 patients who have recently become a parent, including men.
Many women notice a change in mood due to menopause, which can cause anxiety, anger, tearfulness, and more. The advice for managing hormonal rage applies to all the intense emotions related to hormones, including crying for no reason.
I keep crying all the time – is it burnout?
Burnout or emotional exhaustion is when a person reaches the limits of their capacity. The stresses and strains of life can be challenging to handle at the best of times, and they can soon become unmanageable.
Many of us carry on until we hit a breaking point when the chronic stress we’re experiencing is entrenched. One obvious sign of nearing this breaking point is crying for no reason.
Self-care is crucial in building up your reserves – try these top 10 things to help reduce anxiety at home. If things have gone beyond this point, The Center • A Place of HOPE‘s Stress Reduction Treatment can help.
Am I crying because of repressed emotions?
Sometimes, unexplained tears can signify repressed emotions. Although there is no definitive answer on whether crying is cathartic, suppressing our feelings may mean we don’t have to deal with them immediately. Still, it doesn’t make them disappear altogether.
Those feelings you’ve been trying to squash can often find another way to be expressed, even if the two don’t initially seem connected.
Repressing emotions as a coping strategy can result from many different origins, from growing up in an environment of toxic masculinity where tears are viewed as a weakness to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Professional help from experienced therapists can help you access and process your emotions and learn new strategies for coping with strong emotions.
Angry tears: Why do I cry when I get mad?
Anger is one of the least socially acceptable emotions, particularly for women and girls. Many people grow up being told their rage is not welcome, is frightening, or even dangerous.
For these people, redirecting feelings of anger into more palatable tears allows them to express their emotions, albeit in a way that may seem like it doesn’t make sense.
Anger is often thought of as a secondary emotion under which lies fear or sadness. In this context, the tears make more sense. It can alert us to having entered a stress response (also known as ‘fight, flight, freeze), which is another way our bodies work to keep us safe. Our bodies are flooded with stress hormones, which can feel overwhelming, causing us to cry for no reason.
Learning how to balance emotions is a valuable skill to practice.
Does widespread suffering make me cry?
Sometimes, the tears we cry seemingly for no reason may result from more significant issues. The world can feel like a dangerous place, particularly for those at greater risk of systemic violence and oppression, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism.
The political landscape can feel increasingly volatile. As a result, climate grief or ecological grief (a psychological response to environmental loss related to the changing climate) has become more widespread.
The Center • A Place of HOPE offers Whole Person Care, a treatment program that integrates all aspects of a person’s life.
I’m still crying for no reason, and I can’t stop!
None of the causes above explain your tears. That’s okay.
Let the feelings accompany the tears, journaling some of the emotions that arise. Research shows that naming emotions reduces their intensity, so if you can give language to your tears, it is much better.
And if you can’t, don’t give yourself a hard time! ‘The Second Arrow of Suffering’ is a parable in the Buddhist tradition about dealing with suffering. It suggests that when we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. Being struck by one arrow is painful (in this case, the unexpected tears). But being hit by a second arrow is even more painful (being hard on yourself about the tears). Be kind to yourself.
 Gračanin, A., Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M., Kardum, I., Zupčić, M., Šantek, M., & Šimić, M. (2015). Why crying sometimes does and sometimes does not alleviate mood: A quasi-experimental study
 Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M. and Williams, K., 2003. Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Science, 302(5643), pp.290-292.