Scientists1https://www.jstor.org/stable/24921629 believe humans are the only animals to shed emotional tears. We cry at weddings. We cry at funerals. We cry when our team wins the championship.
Unfortunately, those moments become uncomfortable for some people because they can’t cry. Not being able to express emotions in a socially accepted way for a situation can be frustrating and awkward. But tears aren’t the only way to communicate those intense emotions of joy, anger, or fear.
Before we go there, let’s talk about tears and why they are such a powerful part of the human experience.
What Is Emotional Crying?
Emotional crying is when a person responds with tears to emotional triggers like sadness, joy, or anger.
There are also other types of tears, including basal tears, which keep our eyes from drying out, as well as reflexive tears, meant to flush out irritants and protect our eyes (hello, dust and onions!). For this article, we’ll mainly focus on emotional tears.
Is it Normal to Not Cry?
It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what is “normal” for emotional crying. The APA reports2https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/07-08/numbers that women cry emotional tears an average of 30-64 times a year, while the average for men is 5-17 times a year. Remembering that each person’s particular tendencies and sensitivities vary wildly is essential. A study’s average is just that – an average, not actually the experience of any one person.
Common reasons3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6402489/#R38 people report as causes for crying include conflicts, minor personal failures, criticism, rejection, or even a sad movie.
A study4https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1069397111404519#:~:text=Gender%20differences%20in%20crying%20proneness,expressiveness%20and%20personality)%20are%20discussed. shows that gender differences in crying are “more significant in wealthier, more democratic, and more feminine countries.”
Crying more or less than average is not inherently good or bad. Knowing your tendencies and personality, learning to process emotions, and clearly expressing feelings are valuable skills to develop.
We’ll talk later about the various factors affecting a person’s propensity to cry. First, let’s dive into why someone may not be able to express their feelings through tears.
Common Reasons for Not Crying
Several common causes affect a person’s ability to cry, including physical, medical, and emotional factors.
Human bodies are incredibly complicated mechanisms. Each person being unique means there is no “one size fits all” explanation, but understanding the different factors can help you seek the appropriate resources.
Some medical conditions mean the body is physically incapable of producing enough tears to cry. It’s also possible that environmental factors like dry, windy conditions reduce the body’s ability to produce tears.
Contact lenses can affect tear production as they dry out, making it harder to produce tears.
A person’s hormone balance can also affect one’s sensitivity to crying. For example, the hormone testosterone3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6402489/#R38 is believed to repress crying.
In addition to natural hormones and physical factors, some medications can have side effects that reduce tear production, such as antihistamines. Certain symptoms of depression can affect normal emotional reactions, including emotional numbness, called anhedonia.
For some people, the experience of processing and managing emotions was painful, and, over time, repressing those emotions became the automatic reaction. In other cases, crying was belittled as a sign of weakness, and the person actively trained themselves not to cry.
Retraining one’s mind to process emotions rather than repress them takes professional guidance, time, and patience. It’s like the physical therapy required after an arm in a cast has atrophied. Like rebuilding muscle, learning to process emotions involves creating new neural pathways and actively retraining ingrained habits.
Whether physical, medical, or serious emotional factors, a medical professional and/or mental health professional are the best resources for diagnosis and treatment options.
A Note on Personal Tolerance
In addition to the reasons above, it’s also possible your tolerance for emotion has a higher baseline than others around you. That’s not inherently good or bad; it’s just something to consider.
Let’s take an analogy: imagine it’s a hot summer day, and you’re on a walk with a friend. You are both experiencing the same environment (a warm day), but what may be tolerable for you is unbearable for your friend, who is more prone to heatstroke.
Similarly, crying is actually a result of many physical and emotional factors, including, but certainly not limited to:
- Physical exhaustion
- Emotional bandwidth
- Hormone levels
- Stress levels
- Available support systems
- Self-care routines
Ponder how these factors may affect you or those around you as you experience stressful situations together.
What’s the Social Importance of Crying?
Crying has an important role in society as a method of non-verbal communication. Even if crying isn’t a way you communicate your feelings, it can be helpful to understand its place in our social structure.
- It signals to others that the person is distressed and needs support.
- It elicits social support from others who want to offer comfort and reassurance.
- It allows for emotional intimacy because the person crying demonstrates vulnerability and trust.
- It breaks down stereotypes and social barriers by helping others view the person as a complex human with emotions.
What’s the Impact of Crying on Physical and Emotional Health?
Studies5https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/is-crying-good-for-you-2021030122020#:~:text=Researchers%20have%20established%20that%20crying,both%20physical%20and%20emotional%20pain. show the impact of crying on physical and emotional health can be very beneficial. Emotional tears contain stress hormones and toxins that are flushed out of the body. Crying also triggers the release of oxytocin and other endorphins that can ease physical and emotional pain.
Conversely, research6https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22081940/ indicates that those who use repressive coping to handle negative emotions have a higher risk of cancer, and cardiovascular diseases, especially hypertension. It’s also been linked to physical effects like muscle tension, headaches, and a compromised immune system.
Now, please understand that crying isn’t the only way to process emotions to be physically and emotionally healthy.
How To Process Emotions Without Crying
If you find yourself needing a way to process and express emotions, consider the following:
Keeping a journal of things that impact you, how they make you feel, and what options you see for dealing with them offers a way to express yourself. You can also write a poem, song lyrics, or a letter (that you don’t have to send).
For example, Betty might make the following note about a delayed flight.
“On the flight home, it looked like there was going to be an empty seat on my row, and I was so excited to have room to stretch out. But the attendants didn’t close the door, and after nearly 30 minutes of sitting at the gate, they announced we were waiting for the final passengers. By this point, I was mad that I was waiting for someone to show up and make my trip less comfortable. Finally, this little old couple arrived, and I felt ashamed for having wished we’d left without them because if we had, they would have been waiting hours for the next flight.”
Try this: Set a goal to keep a small notebook handy for one week. When you experience strong emotion, positive or negative, write it down. At the end of the week, look through your notes and see how writing down your thoughts affected how you viewed the situations. For more ideas on goal setting, check out Goal Setting: 5 Science-Backed Steps to Setting and Achieving Your Goals.
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2. Talk with someone you trust
For those who process information by talking about it, consider asking a trusted friend to be a sounding board for your thoughts rather than writing it down. They shouldn’t take the place of professional guidance, but being able to talk through complex emotions can be valuable.
To ask a friend for help, consider saying, “Hey, I’ve had a lousy day, and I need to talk it over with someone. Are you available to meet up tonight?”
I was recently talking to a friend who knew I’d had an overwhelming week, and she started the conversation by asking, “Do you just want me to listen, or would you like some suggestions?” For friends and family who care about you but may not be as perceptive, clarify what kind of help you need.
If you are looking for advice, you might try, “I have a problem with a coworker, and I’d like your suggestions on how I could talk to her.” Before you ask for help plotting the perfect revenge, check out this article: The Psychology of Revenge: Why It’s Secretly Rewarding.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a listening ear, make that clear in your request, “I just found out I have a huge car repair on top of my fridge dying. I don’t need you to try and fix anything; I just need to vent.”
3. Express your feelings creatively
You can also look for creative outlets for your emotion. Consider some of these options:
- Join a jam session for an instrument you play
- Compose a song that fits your mood
- Paint using colors that match your current emotional state
- Draw a picture of your ideal solution to the current situation
- Look up a nearby “Break Room” to let out anger in a safe environment
- Create a dance to express your emotions
- Dedicate a workout to expelling the stressful things from your mind
- Take up a meditative hobby like woodworking, sewing, model building, knitting, or cross-stitch
4. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a topic that has gotten more attention in recent years. It is the idea of fully engaging with the present moment without judgment or distraction. Many applications and activities can improve mindfulness just with the proper mindset.
- Labeling feelings without judgment
- Computer coding
- Deep breathing
Many everyday activities could be modified to pursue mindfulness by intentionally focusing on being present in the moment.
Try this: Pick one activity you already have a habit of and try doing it mindfully. For example, if you walk to school or work, choose a day to turn off any music, podcasts, or audiobooks and focus on your surroundings. Are the trees along your route all the same? All different? Are there birds chirping along the way? Is there a building under construction? Do people walk alone or in groups?
You can find other suggestions in 30 Mindfulness Activities To Keep Your Mind Calm (At Any Age).
Communicating Emotions When You Don’t Cry
As we mentioned earlier, those who don’t cry may feel uncomfortable in situations where tears are socially acceptable. The first thing to recognize is that while crying is often a part of events like funerals, farewells, and even celebrations, it isn’t required.
Let’s repeat that for emphasis.
You don’t have to cry.
In situations of grief and loss, everyone processes emotional distress differently. One person may react strongly when they hear the news, while another has no external reaction. For some, emotions may be strongest when surrounded by friends and family. Others could be hit hardest when alone and hear a song or smell a particular flower that triggers a memory.
If you find yourself in an emotional situation, consider these suggestions for ways to communicate your feelings without crying:
Use the phrase “I feel _____ because…” to identify and communicate your emotions to others. Be specific about why you feel the way you do so others know better what’s going on and how they can help.
For example: “I’m feeling undervalued because our boss just hired a new person to do a project I already have most of the skill set to complete, and now I spend more time training them on the process than it would take me just to do it myself.”
Convey emotion through body language
You may not be able to cry with a friend having a hard time, but your facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice can all express sympathy and concern. You may also be able to show support through physical touch, such as a hug or holding their hand.
Ask for support
As we discussed earlier, if someone else cries, we are more likely to offer assistance. Tears are a universal indicator of pain and need. Even if you don’t cry, you may still want and need emotional support from those around you. The challenge is that it’s harder for others to know when and how much help to offer without the signal of tears. If you don’t cry, you can still express your needs verbally.
It can be as simple as saying, “I had a really rough day. Can I have a hug?” or “I’m really frustrated right now, and I’m not going to be able to focus on this. I need to go take a walk. I’ll be back in a few minutes”.
Learning Emotions to Be Your Best Self
There’s no doubt that emotions are complex. Expressing them, even in the best of circumstances, can be difficult. The additional need to express feelings with the standard social cues from crying may feel overwhelming.
Since each person is different, it’s essential and valuable for you to learn strategies to maintain your mental and emotional health. As you determine the underlying causes of why you don’t cry, then work to address them, you’ll learn how to process complex emotional situations healthily.
You can discuss your concerns and options for physical, medical conditions, emotional factors, and mental health conditions with a medical provider or therapist. Friends and family can be a support as you learn to communicate emotions in verbal and non-verbal ways other than crying. That ability will help you grow and develop into the best version of you.
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