We’ve all had those days (or weeks) when the smallest thing triggers a flood of tears, and you can’t stop crying for no reason at all. (No? Just me?) When this happens, I try to take into account factors like my menstrual cycle and whether I’ve gone through a period of especially bad anxiety or depression. Sometimes, all signs point in those directions, but other times, I’m at a total loss as to why I’m sobbing on the bus.
To try to figure out the cause of the unexplained tears, I asked a few medical and mental health experts about what could be behind this unusual display of emotion.
This makes sense when you think about it given how prone toddlers who skip their naps are to total meltdowns. But it’s a factor as we age too according to Chris Brantner, certified sleep science coach at SleepZoo.
“Sleep deprivation can occur when lack of sleep, both quality and/or quantity, is bad enough to impair basic functions,” he tells SheKnows. “Now, it’s important to note that some of us grow so used to being sleep-deprived that we fail to notice the signs and symptoms.”
The good news is there’s a simple solution for this: getting more sleep. But as Brantner points out, it’s easier said than done. He suggests making a to-do list before bedtime, dimming the lights and creating a new bedtime relaxation ritual, which could include anything from a warm bath to yoga to a good book.
While crying frequently without a trigger is typically associated with psychological issues, there may be physical causes as well — specifically, chronic pain. According to Dr. Mashfika N. Alam, a general practitioner, chronic inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis or physical weakness from a debilitating disease like cancer can mean chronic pain and tears.
“In some people, the pain threshold is low in terms of endurance,” Alam tells SheKnows. “These people are more prone to suffer from chronic pain or discomfort, leading to frequent crying.”
Crying frequently with no real reason can be a sign a person is suffering from “trapped emotions” — unresolved feelings from past negative and traumatic events, according to holistic physician Dr. Bradley Nelson. This emotional baggage can cause us to make wrong assumptions and react emotionally and contributes to anxiety, depression and most forms of illness, he adds.
“Sometimes, for reasons that we do not yet understand, emotions do not process completely,” he says. “In these cases, instead of simply experiencing the emotion and then moving on, the energy of the emotion somehow becomes ‘trapped’ within the physical body. So instead of moving beyond your angry moment or a temporary bout with grief or depression, this negative emotional energy can remain within your body, potentially causing significant physical and emotional stress.”
A sign of something else
According to Dr. Fran Walfish — Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors on CBS and costar on Sex Box on We TV — unexplained crying could be a marker for borderline personality disorder, which could involve sudden mood changes.
“Most people think this means going from calm to a sudden outburst of angry rage. That is not always the case,” Walfish explains. “There are some people who breakdown into tears suddenly. Most people think this comes out of compassion and empathy. But when you see a pattern of regular collapsing into tears and you come up dry not feeling understood or genuinely attuned to, you can bet the crier has a piece of their personality that is self-serving and self-absorbed.”
Walfish likens these tears to “emotional masturbation,” as they are crying for themselves and enjoy feelings that they are indeed caring people “when in fact it is not for the other person but rather for themselves.” She says that though they may appear to be taking therapy or guidance on board, people with this condition typically end up ignoring it.
There’s always a reason for crying
It turns out, I may have been going about this all wrong, because according to Carol Lourie, a naturopath, acupuncturist and functional medicine expert, there’s always a reason a person cries.
“You may not be able to see it, but that doesn’t lessen the validity of the woman’s internal experience,” she tells SheKnows, reminding me that crying is not a “bad thing,” so it’s not necessarily something that must be stopped.
Similarly, GinaMarie Guarino, a licensed mental health counselor, says that even when there doesn’t seem to be an apparent cause of the crying, there’s always a deeper reason behind the tears.
“Crying is not something that happens when we are sad,” she tells SheKnows. “The purpose of crying is to release energy of some kind. When a person cries and does not know why, it often has to do with anxiety of some kind.”
In such situations, Guarino recommends asking yourself what is weighing on you, what you’re avoiding and what you are having trouble coming to terms with.
Lourie suggests acknowledging that you are upset, coming from a place of self-compassion and not judgment — something I’m going to keep in mind the next time the waterworks start on my evening commute.