Ever Want To Cry but Literally Don’t Have the Tears? Here’s How To Find a Cathartic Release

Photo: Getty Images/Delmaine Donson
Being able to express yourself emotionally—whether in conversation with someone you trust, through an artistic medium like painting, or by crying—is important for your emotional health because it's a form of release. Emotional expression allows you to connect your feelings to your behavior, which in turn helps you understand how you interpret and perceive various events and interactions. And with many of us out of our "normal" routines in this pandemic landscape, unable to spend time with loved ones, and experiencing a roller-coaster of emotions on a daily basis, such as overwhelm, anxiety, loneliness, and exhaustion, it's important to acknowledge and express those feelings.

Experts In This Article

When it feels like your brain is constantly in overdrive, trying to keep up with and process headlines and you're simply trying to make it through the day, a variety of emotions may arise. Crying may seem like the most obvious way to express negative emotions like sadness, disappointment, pain, and grief. But it's also one that's not available to every person—not even when they feel the need or desire to let their tears flow.

It's also possible that you may have had no problem crying for entire swaths of your life, but then suddenly, your well has run dry. Well, this tracks too because the ability to cry in a given situation is highly personalized and reflective of so many factors. There are many reasons that can explain why you struggle to cry, such as medication side effects, mental health conditions, and trauma of all forms (including generational trauma related to racial injustice). And, yep, the bevy of emotions associated with living through the coronavirus pandemic, such as loneliness and isolation, factor in, too.

So, if you're confused about why you struggle to cry, consider yourself in good dry-eyed company—but also don't write off the ability to find a cathartic way to express your emotions if you find yourself unable to tear up. Below, get intel from experts about why folks develop an inability to cry, how to reverse that, and alternative ideas for emotional release.

Reasons why you may struggle to cry

If someone who is typically able to express their emotions by crying suddenly is unable to do so, it's important to rule out medical or ophthalmological causes, says Jenicka Engler, PsyD, a psychologist, neuropsychologist, and depression researcher in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. For some, the inability to cry may be caused by medications such as antidepressants, and psychologist Jameca Woody Cooper, PhD, suggests you speak with your health-care provider if feel you are unable to cry for this reason.

"Some people develop a sense of emotional distance and numbness from their own emotions as a defense mechanism." —Jenicka Engler, PsyD

The inability to cry "can also be experienced as a normal stress response for some people," similar to that of the fight, flight, or freeze trauma response, which many have experienced throughout this pandemic year. "Some people develop a sense of emotional distance and numbness from their own emotions as a defense mechanism," says Dr. Engler. These people tend to constantly repress their emotions—consciously and subconsciously—without acknowledging or processing them. This can be a temporary fix in distressing moments, "but it's a pretty maladaptive coping mechanism to put walls up between your inner emotional experiences, and it doesn't work well over time," says Dr. Engler.

Another reason you may find yourself struggling to cry can be due to mental-health conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder, Dr. Engler says. "It's commonly thought that you need to be sad or crying a lot to be depressed, but many people with major depressive disorder present as unable to feel emotions or as if the 'volume dial' on their emotions is turned down." Dr. Woody Cooper adds that "trauma can make the person and the brain, to some extent, shut down as if in protection mode," leading to a feeling of emotional numbness and the inability to cry.

How to reverse emotional numbness and the inability to cry

There isn't a quick fix to reverse emotional numbness or the inability to cry, but there are ways to reconnect with your emotions. One way to better express your emotions and create an environment where it feels safe to release these emotions is to "bring emotional language to the forefront of your regular day-to-day experiences," says Dr. Engler. This means going to therapy, sharing your emotions with trusted friends and family, journaling, and using "I feel" statements, she says.

For people who find themselves wishing they could have an emotional release through crying, Dr. Woody Cooper says it's imperative you identify the reasons why you're cut off from that emotion. To do so, she suggests seeking therapy because it's likely that a traumatic event, or a series of traumatic events, led to the suppression of sadness and crying to an extent that may preclude you from feeling these emotions.

How to achieve emotional release

In addition to therapy, "one of the easiest ways to get a release of emotions and cry is to talk about and process your negative experiences and emotions with someone else," says Dr. Engler. "There's something transformative about saying those words out loud to another human being." And if you're not in a space to cry yet, another way to achieve that catharsis is to participate in activities that produce "feel-good endorphins in the nervous system," such as sketching or doing a high-intensity workout1.

Another option to help you become more in tune with your emotions and cry is to watch a sad movie or read a sad book, says Dr. Woody Cooper. "A link between emotional films and the release of the hormone oxytocin in the brain has been reported," she says. Oxytocin is dubbed the "cuddle" hormone and has been shown to increase feelings of trust, closeness to others, generosity, and happiness, according to Dr. Woody Cooper. So, by reading a sad book or watching a sad movie, someone who finds it difficult to cry will ideally be able to get in touch with their emotions and potentially feel comfortable enough to cry.

Becoming in tune with your emotions and being able to express them in healthy ways such as crying may take time and more than likely so trial and error.  If you're concerned about being unable to cry, or if you feel like your emotions have suddenly changed, both Dr. Engler and Dr. Woody Copper recommend speaking with a licensed mental-health professional.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Saanijoki, Tiina et al. “Opioid Release after High-Intensity Interval Training in Healthy Human Subjects.” Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology vol. 43,2 (2018): 246-254. doi:10.1038/npp.2017.148
  2. Barraza, Jorge A, and Paul J Zak. “Empathy toward strangers triggers oxytocin release and subsequent generosity.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1167 (2009): 182-9. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04504.x

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