Why Am I Crying? Spontaneous Tears Help the Brain Release Stress
Your body's trying to tell you something
Crying has become an unwanted habit of mine. Over the last 177 days in coronavirus-induced quarantine, I've burst, unprompted, into tears so often I've lost count. It goes like this: One moment I'm fine – checking my email, binge-watching my umpteenth Netflix series, washing the never-ending pile of dishes – and BAM. Tears, sometimes in brief spurts, sometimes hysterical sobs. I've lost hours trying to get my emotions in check.
These spontaneous crying jags leave me feeling out of sorts and wondering if I'm losing my mind. I'm not alone. A colleague recently confessed she was dealing with a similar reaction to stress. One of my favorite writers, Lyz Lenz, opened an NBC Think piece with a story about crying out of nowhere during a work meeting because all her other coping methods were gone. A friend, a local activist, told me he, too, is experiencing unprompted crying, spurred by feelings of empathy, the stress of COVID-19 isolation, and anxiety over the impending election.
It appears this "unprompted" crying isn't really unprompted at all. As Rachel Saffer, director of Children's Services at Austin Center for Grief & Loss, explained, "I wouldn't say all this crying is spontaneous. Maybe it comes out at random times, but there may be other things leading up to it." Those "other things," she said, include the realities of 2020: social isolation, learning new ways to accomplish everyday tasks like grocery shopping, poor sleep, the drastic change in how we celebrate. Those lucky enough to be employed are struggling with work/home separation, and working from home has many feeling pressured to work harder to keep their jobs. In short, the pandemic has drastically altered our daily lives. These stressors, coupled with fear of the virus, getting sick, or infecting a loved one, have most of us feeling "stressed out and overwhelmed," Saffer summarized. "We're in the middle of an unknown time."
Spontaneous crying happens when grief, overwhelming feelings, and anxiety get bottled up, Saffer explained. With the added pressure of major social unrest and economic crisis gripping the country, it's no wonder we're not allowing ourselves time and space to process. Impromptu crying, according to Saffer, is "the brain saying, 'I need to release a little bit.'" And while a cathartic cry-fest won't provide a long-term solution to the problems posed by the pandemic, it is therapeutic and "something our brain does purposefully," said Saffer.
Though research on crying is surprisingly limited, a 2017 article from online health information site Medical News Today suggests crying has additional benefits – from potentially alleviating stress to easing physical and emotional pain through the chemical release of oxytocin and endorphins. Noting that crying has "always" been stigmatized, Saffer insisted it's "never bad for us." Instead, a good cry "gives us room, internally, to move forward." Katy Koonce, another local therapist, agreed, telling me: "I think this time requires some tears."
Koonce and Saffer both said frequent crying and other signs of depression – sleeping more, struggling to get out of bed – are likely just results of the pandemic, not depression. Still, this time is taking a toll on Austin's mental health. Austin Grief, which serves children and adults dealing with loss via individual therapy and support groups, has expanded to virtually serve people struggling with COVID-related anxiety. Since the pandemic began, their client load has nearly doubled. Koonce has also experienced an influx of clients. She described pandemic emotions – coupled with ongoing protests for racial equality – as "mass trauma" and "collective grief."
Keeping in line with 2020, the good news is also the bad news: On this emotional roller coaster, crying is a helpful, albeit temporary, fix to a problem with no solution in sight. "Our brains are in fight or flight, but we can't really flee and fighting isn't necessarily productive, so a lot of people are freezing," said Saffer. "That's okay. That's where we're at right now."
Accepting this – and spontaneous tears – requires self-compassion (and limited news consumption, according to both therapists). "We need to understand that it's okay to cry and have these moments," said Saffer. So if you find yourself sobbing mid-email, consider it a sign that a break and some self-care are needed. "It's not great to be on this emotional roller coaster," said Safer, "but it is something we can manage."
Humans are the only animal to produce emotional tears, i.e., tears that fall in response to our emotions. These tears, unlike basal (which keep the eye from drying out) and reflex (which flush out irritants), are thicker and fall slowly – hello, tear-stained cheeks – because they have a higher protein level than the other types. Scientists, however, still don't really understand "why" we cry.
Be gentle with yourself. The Austin Center for Grief & Loss' Rachel Saffer emphasized the importance of having self-compassion in these strange times. Unprompted crying can be a sign that your brain and body need a break, so listen to it. Take a walk, sit down with a hobby, reach out to a friend or loved one to check in – whatever form of self-care helps you reach a better headspace.