According to David H. Rosmarin, PhD, ABPP, the founder and director of Center for Anxiety, crying can be triggered by any overwhelming emotional or physical experience, including everything from a stubbed toe to a commercial for sad-eyed orphan animals to a marriage proposal. And although he says it’s not as common to cry when you’re anxious as it is when you’re sad or in pain, some people experience the emotion so intensely that it can provoke tears.
The "anxiety crying" response is specific to each individual's experiences, traumas, and traits.
As for why you’re among those who cry in stressful situations—whether it be a performance review, a test, a date at the doctor's, or anything else that causes you to feel anxiety—the answer is simply (and, perhaps, annoyingly) that everyone is different. For example, in the performance review anecdote, Maureen Sayres Van Niel, MD, president of the American Psychiatric Association Women's Caucus, cites imposter syndrome, perfectionism, and power dynamics as potential triggers for the anxiety tears. All of those have one underlying emotion in common: fear. If fiercely felt, fear can cause you to cry just as easily as can the sudden passing of a loved one. But not everyone experiences fear as strongly in the performance review situation as the person who cries, and some may not feel fear at all. So, the "anxiety crying" response is specific to each individual's experiences, traumas, and traits.
With that said, certain demographics may be more prone to the reaction than others. Both Dr. Van Niel and Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker and performance coach for high achievers, posit that women may cry in stressful situations more often than do men. In their practices, they see women struggle more often than men with self-induced pressure (e.g., that aforementioned perfectionism). In other words, women may experience more fear around things that men may not be as socialized to be afraid of, and thus they cry more frequently.
While this theory might not be supported by science as of yet, there are studies to back up the idea that women cry more easily than do men for biological reasons. According to Ad Vingerhoets, author of Why Humans Weep: Unravelling the Mysteries of Tears, women have less of the hormone testosterone, which Vingerhoets says inhibits crying, and more of the hormone prolactin, which is associated with emotion. They also (fun fact!) have smaller tear ducts than do men, which make theirs more likely to spill over in emotional moments.
It's not all about gender, however. Wilding notes that if you cry more easily than do others, another biological difference may be at play. "There are people who are highly sensitive, and it’s actually a genetic trait difference," she says. "Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are just moved to emotion much more easily—we process our own feelings, we sense the feelings of other people, we have higher emotional intensity." HSPs, she says, experience sensory overload more easily than do others, which provokes an emotional response that can, for some people, manifest tears.
This is all very interesting, you may be thinking, but how do I make it stop? After all, crying in meetings can feel shameful. Which is—first and foremost, according to both Wilding and Rosmarin—not okay. "The fact that you're having intense emotions is not anything to be ashamed of or to have to change," Rosmarin says. Wilding agrees, and both suggest that the focus should not be on eradicating such emotions but rather on regulating your response to them.
One way to do this, says Rosmarin, is to purposely expose yourself to the trigger. “One of the reasons emotions can be intense is that people aren't used to having those emotions,” he explains. “The intensity is magnified because it's new, because it's not a common thing for them.” So for example, if you’re prone to crying in your performance reviews, the solution would be to ask for more frequent feedback sessions. This, he says, will not so much eliminate the emotional response as it will get you used to it, so that you’ll be less likely to experience it so fiercely. This will (you guessed it) lead to fewer tears over time.
If you can’t engineer more actual interactions with your tear trigger, however, Wilding recommends trying to mentally rehearse them instead. She suggests looking at the triggering events leading up to your involuntarily weepy moments, and then evaluating how you'd ideally respond versus how you're responding. In this process, she says, you may also want to identify which worst-case scenarios are running through your head in these times of tears and then talk yourself through just how likely those outcomes are. (Spoiler alert: probably not very.)
Emotions—including anxiety, fear, and other "negative" mood states—are not something to smother with shame.
These tactics, as well as the employment of anxiety management techniques such as 4-7-8 breathing, can help to troubleshoot you through specific situations. However, Dr. Van Niel also recommends digging into the root cause of the emotion with a licensed therapist. Why do you feel fear around performance reviews? It could be a bad boss or an unstable work environment, in which case action specific to the situation may need to be taken. Or, it could be something deeper, such as imposter syndrome, in which case therapeutic work done on that core issue will ideally help to defang its triggers in future situations.
Ultimately, the message to take away from these three experts is that emotions—including anxiety, fear, and other "negative" mood states—are not something to smother with shame. It's okay to feel all the feelings, no matter the setting. You can, however, work to tame unwanted responses to your emotions, e.g. crying, with a little awareness around when and why you're triggered to tears as well as a willingness to expose yourself to the situations in which they arise more often. In the case of performance reviews, a little extra face time with your supervisor can't hurt the relationship, right? And if you're still crying after meeting with your boss monthly, the problem may be your job and not your tears.
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