Do you find it hard to cry, even when something upsets you? Do your eyes stay dry when you’re sad or overwhelmed? Do you feel like you want to cry, but the tears just won’t come? Do you often wonder “why can’t I cry?”
If so, you’re not alone. Many of us find it difficult to cry.
Some people seem to have no trouble crying – their eyes well up when they feel sad or while they’re watching a tearjerker movie.
Some people are even able to cry at the drop of a hat. Others, however, can go months, even years, without shedding a single tear.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the many reasons why people feel like they are unable to cry. You’ll learn about the benefits of crying, as well as some practical tips to help you get the tears flowing and release any pent-up emotion that you’ve been holding on to for too long.
First, let’s take a look at the function of crying.
What’s the point of crying?
A 2014 study by the Frontiers in Psychology on the nature of crying, described as a ‘universal and uniquely human emotional expression,’ found that it plays a significant role in human behavior as a self-soothing mechanism.
According to the study published in Frontiers in Psychology, we cry for two main, broad reasons. These are:
- Intra-individual functions
- Inter-individual functions
Intra-individual functions are the effects that crying has on the individual. Examples of intra-individual functions of crying include stress reduction, mood enhancement, and emotional release.
As babies, our primary caregiver helps us regulate our emotions through soothing mechanisms such as rocking, cuddling, or singing to us. There is a gentle rhythm to each of these soothing mechanisms that helps us feel calm following emotional turmoil or upset.
As we get older, we learn self-soothing behavior. We spend time dancing, singing, breathing deeply, or going for a walk or run to calm ourselves down when we’re feeling stressed.
These behaviors, or mechanisms, are also rhythmic and serve the same purpose as the soothing mechanisms used by our caregivers. Crying is a self-soothing behavior we can use as adults to regain emotional balance and soothe an overwhelmed nervous system.
The inter-individual functions of crying refer to the effect of crying on those around us. As mentioned, babies cry ‘as an appeal for the presence and attention of the caregiver.’
Recent research on the social functions of crying has found that visible tears promote empathy and prosocial behavior, greater social bonding, and reduced likelihood of interpersonal aggression.
Am I unable to cry?
If it’s been a while since you’ve shed a tear, you may believe that you have an inability to cry. Crying is completely natural and is, in fact, one of the quickest and most effective ways to release our emotions.
It is a healthy form of emotional expression and is by no means reserved for babies and young children, contrary to what some people falsely believe.
There is no right or wrong amount of tears.
If you struggle to cry and produce tears, then you may feel like you have a lot of trapped emotion inside with no easy way to get it all out. You may struggle to release your negative emotions and suffer from much emotional tension and turmoil as a result.
There are several reasons why you may have difficulty crying, including:
1. Mental health issues
The inability to cry may stem from mental health issues such as depression (major depressive disorder) or depression as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or borderline personality disorder.
You may think depression is all about sadness and that, as such, crying would be commonplace for a depressed person. However, many people who struggle with depression process emotions differently and produce fewer tears.
While it’s true that persistent sadness is a major symptom of depression, the fact is that depression can manifest in several other ways, one of which is a feeling of emptiness or emotional numbness.
Feelings of numbness and emptiness that show up in depressed people affect tear production. Feeling numb also makes it hard for them to laugh, feel excited, and experience joy.
They may experience what is known as ‘flat affect’ (most commonly observed in schizophrenia), which is characterized by a monotone voice, lack of facial expression and other common signs of emotional experience.
Often, it’s not that the person does not feel a range of emotions, but rather that they have an internal mental block that prevents them from easily expressing themselves and to process emotions.
2. Gender stereotypes
Gender stereotypes and cultural expectations can impact a person’s ability to cry with ease.
Young boys are often told not to let out a good cry in an attempt by a parent or family member to teach them how to ‘be a man.’ As such, these boys avoid crying even if they feel hurt and despite the emotional pain they’re feeling.
Though these gender stereotypes are looser than ever before as society has become more open and accepting of emotional expression, many young boys still avoid crying because of their belief in the old saying ‘boys don’t cry.’ Crying is a sign of weakness and result to a bad reputation.
Of course, boys, girls, men, women, and older people cry. Crying is not an age or gender-specific behavior. Teaching young boys that they shouldn’t cry can lead to repressed emotions which is extremely harmful to their mental health and can have effects that last all the way into adulthood.
In an article in the Irish Times, author Fiona Forman discusses the harmful ‘boys don’t cry’ stereotype. “Traditionally, men are seen as being weak or unmanly in some way if they expressed themselves through crying, hence terms such as ‘man up’ and insults such as ‘Mommy’s boy,’ explains Forman.
“Although this view of masculinity is thankfully changing, it is still hard to shake off the entrenched cultural values that we have all absorbed. In some ways, we may feel we are protecting boys from the judgments of others and preparing them for the so-called ‘real world’ by telling them not to cry from a young age. It has always been more socially acceptable for girls to cry, so we are more likely to comfort them rather than telling them to stop.”
3. Shame and stigma
Unfortunately, some people view crying as a sign of weakness or a reflection of a person’s inability to release emotions. As such, many of us learn to suppress our natural urge to cry when something makes us feel down or emotional.
Over time, repression of this completely natural urge becomes a habit that can be hard to break.
Can you remember a time when you wanted to cry, but you felt like you had to hold it in until you are in a private place? Perhaps you were on a train, behind your desk at work, or hanging out with a friend for coffee.
You may have felt like you couldn’t cry because others would look at you and judge you, so you kept it in and pushed down your emotions, or you fled the scene and found somewhere secluded to go and cry it all out.
It’s completely natural to cry, so if you find yourself trying to hold back the tears, try not to do so out of worrying about what other people think. Your emotions are your own, and if you want to cry, it is as much within your right to do as it is to laugh or breathe.
“Crying has always been something to be hidden from others,” writes Joyoti Chowdhury for Feminism In India. “It is usually considered to be inordinately ‘personal,’ but is not ‘personal’ ‘political,’ too? We often lack an understanding of our reaction when one is unexpectedly crying while it is never the case when there is an instance of unusual laughter.”
4. Emotional abuse
Much like how young boys are taught not to cry as a means of growing into a ‘real man’ and may be more likely to suffer from mental and emotional health issues, children who are shamed or reprimanded for showing their emotions may also find it challenging to express negative emotions in a healthy way when they become adults.
In some family dynamics, children are told off or even punished for crying. In cases of childhood abuse, the punishment for crying, which may have been a source of annoyance or frustration for the abuser, may have been so severe that the child learned to suppress their natural urge to cry with an urgency that resembles a survival response.
The child, incredibly frightened and confused as a result of emotional abuse in the home, does all he or she can to prevent further punishment or maltreatment at the hands of the caregiver.
A common survival response seen in child trauma survivors is dissociation, whereby the child detaches from their physical and emotional experience as a means of getting through their adverse circumstances.
Certain medications inhibit the user’s ability to process difficult emotions. According to research at Oxford University, antidepressants are among the most common culprit medications for the inability to cry, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
The Oxford University researchers found that up to 46 percent of patients taking antidepressants had experienced a reduced ability to feel and express a range of their own emotions, an effect known as ’emotional blunting.’ As such, they produce fewer tears and can barely laugh.
The benefits of crying
Did you know that crying is good for you? Crying has several health benefits for the body. Research by Frontiers in Psychology has found that the tears we experience in response to strong emotions contain high levels of stress hormones.
Prolonged stress without release is harmful to the body. Emotional crying elicits the purging of some of these stress hormones from the body. Essentially, when we cry, we release stress.
Crying also activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), the branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) responsible for states of rest and digestion. The opposite of the PSNS is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which activates in response to stress.
How to cry and release your emotions
If you’ve been struggling to cry, but you know that it would make you feel better, there are some healthy ways to get those emotional tears flowing.
Bear in mind that if your inability to cry stems from mental health problems or past traumatic event, then it’s wise to speak to a mental health professional.
The following tips are not a substitute for professional medical advice. However, they should help you tune into your emotions and may assist you in releasing any blocks in the way of experiencing this necessary, cathartic emotional release.
1. Challenge your thoughts
Try your best to let go of unhelpful, outdated beliefs about crying. Crying is not a sign of weakness and is not a sign of immaturity.
It does not make you any less of a man, it doesn’t mean that you are soft and does not reflect an inability to handle your emotions.
You may think it’s best to take a stubborn, no-tears approach to life, but in the long run, crying can help you maintain your physical and mental wellness.
Letting out your emotions through crying is a great way to feel better about whatever’s upsetting you, no matter your age, gender, or cultural or family background.
2. Practice self-awareness
Crying is a healthy form of emotional expression. Free emotional expression is key to living a mentally and emotionally healthy life. It can be hard to release emotions freely if you’re not deeply in touch with them.
Through self-awareness, you can pay attention to how you’re feeling in both mind and body, which is a prerequisite for accepting and releasing those pent-up feelings.
Practice self-awareness and learn how to label your emotions. When you notice that you’re having an emotional response to something, try to notice how it feels in your body.
Where do you feel, warm or cold? Where do you feel tense? Understanding our physical responses to life events is a crucial step in accurately identifying what’s going on in our minds.
Over time, and with consistent self-awareness practice, you’ll find it much easier to recognize what you’re feeling and when you’re feeling it. It will also be easier to accept that sometimes you need to cry, and there’s no reason to hold back on those tears.
3. Try to express how you feel
You may experience something upsetting or emotional but not shed tears, and that’s fine. You don’t have to cry every time you feel down or upset by something. What’s most important is that you express how you feel, whether you want to cry or not.
If you’re going through something difficult, don’t hesitate to speak to a friend or loved one about how you’re feeling. Try journaling if you don’t have anyone to talk to or would rather not express certain emotions to those around you.
Write how you feel down on paper and let your thoughts and emotions flow onto the page. If you don’t want to talk or write about yourself, get creative and start painting, playing music, or crafting. As long as you find and use some outlet for your emotions, you’re on the right track.
The more you acknowledge, accept, and express how you feel, the stronger your relationship with your emotions will become. Over time, it may become easier to cry when you feel sad, laugh when you feel joyful, and be silent when you feel at peace.
4. Evoke sadness
Very often, our inability to cry stems from suppressing the natural urge to shed some tears. We get so used to not crying that the act of crying becomes unfamiliar, and it’s hard to get started.
One effective way to open up your floodgates is to evoke tears by watching a sad movie or reading a sad book. According to research, watching sad movies elicits the release of a neurotransmitter known as oxytocin in the brain.
Oxytocin is one of the four ‘feel-good’ chemicals and is strongly associated with trust, bonding, happiness, and generosity.
If difficulty with crying comes from not being comfortable with crying in the first place, then oxytocin can help. Oxytocin helps us feel more comfortable with emotions, even those of strangers.
As such, watching a sad movie or reading a sad book and feeling for the lives of the characters can help you feel comfortable enough to let out some tears.
5. Speak to a therapist
If you’re out of touch with your emotions, you may end up missing out on the wide spectrum of experience that life has to offer. Your life is your own, and you only get one, so it’s important to experience it as fully as possible.
If you have trouble crying and suspect that it has something to do with emotional difficulty or trauma, you may benefit from speaking to a therapist. There may be other mental health issues, other than major depressive disorder, that need to be addressed.
In this article, we’ve discussed the harmful stigma that surrounds crying. There is also, unfortunately, a harmful stigma around seeking help from a therapist.
It’s important to let go of both of the above stigmas.
Visiting a licensed therapist can be life-changing if you need help. It’s something that many people are reluctant to try at first, but it becomes a significant source of relief and gratitude even after just a few sessions in a safe space.
A therapist can help you explore your emotions and the root causes of your inability to cry. They will safely guide you in an eye-opening journey of self-discovery and help you recognize the values and beliefs that you’re holding onto but which are hindering your emotional freedom.
Crying is an entirely natural emotional response to strong emotions. Unfortunately, so many of us suppress our natural urge to cry, but the good news is that we can get those tears flowing with some support and will be able to cry.
If you’ve been wanting to cry but couldn’t because of certain medications that affect tear production, or have been averse to crying for years, let today be the day that you allow yourself to shed some tears, begin the process of letting out your deepest emotions and let those tears flow.
The bottom line is that you’re entitled to cry, so never let anyone tell you otherwise.