Why does PTSD make you cry? The science of our tears

Scientists believe that crying can make you feel physically and emotionally better. ‘Having a good cry’ is thought to rid the body of toxins and waste products which build up during times of elevated stress – so it’s logical then that a person with PTSD may cry much more often that someone without the condition!

Often, people have the impression that crying show weakness, or that you’re too sensitive, but researchers have shown that ‘crying is not only a human response to sorrow and frustration, it’s a healthy one. Crying is a natural way to reduce emotional stress that, left unchecked, has negative physical affects on the body, including increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and other stress-related disorders’. Infact Ronda Rousey, Mixed Martial Arts World Champion is one of the ‘toughest’ women in the world, and openly admits ‘I’m the biggest crier’. So don’t feel you need to hold those tears in.

There are three types of tears: basal (they keep your eyes lubricated), reflex (from peeling an onion) and psychic/emotional tears.

The psychic or emotional tears occur when stress, pleasure, anger, sadness and suffering (or even physical pain) is registered in the cerebrum. It triggers the endocrine system to release hormones to the ocular area which causes tears to form. These tears actually contain a natural painkiller, leucine enkephalin. Along with tears however, emotional crying also tends to raise your heart rate, makes you sweat, your breathing slows and you can get a lump in your throat (known as the globus sensation). This all occurs as a result of your sympathetic nervous system (where your fight / flight / freeze reaction is determined) activating in response to your emotions (PTSD sufferers will know all about that as this is already overworked!).

So what are the benefits of crying?

– It can make you feel good. Facing a problem head on and releasing that pent up energy inside you in the form of tears is like breaking a dam. It won’t rid you of PTSD and your fears, but let your tears flow and you’ll maybe feel a little better afterwards.

– Crying can lower your blood pressure, decrease manganese levels (which can cause additional anxiety) and remove toxins and bad energy which will all help someone with PTSD.

– It shows your strength. Showing your emotions by crying infront of someone takes a strong person (as does having PTSD!).

So we’ve established that crying can be good for you – there are even clubs in Japan for crying where they watch sad films together to make them cry! But what if you can’t stop, or what if you’re trying to hold a conversation and want to be productive with your words (for example when speaking to your GP or counsellor)?

Steve Orma, a clinical psychologist who specialises in stress and anxiety, says that crying can often come from catastrophizing – interpreting things as being worse than they really are. While that isn’t true for how PTSD makes you feel, and how bad having PTSD is, catastrophizing is a common symptom of PTSD – so everything from the smallest of details to the biggest of genuine worries appear worse than they are.

So how do you hold back the tears and keep a level head during serious conversations?

If you’re talking to someone about your PTSD, and how it makes you feel, it’s inevitable that you may get upset. If you’re trying to keep yourself composed though, taking a few deep breaths if things begin to overwhelm you can be a big help.

Focus on what the other person is saying too – so you don’t get trapped in your own head and emotions. Fully engage in the situation and don’t let your mind wander – be mindful and ‘present’ in the conversation as much as possible.

If you begin to catastrophize, ask questions to alleviate your fears – and listen to the facts of the answers so your emotions align with reality – so if that means crying, then do what is necessary!

Tears represent our emotions and visibly show who we are. Wear your tears with pride – having PTSD is a stressful, horrible and emotional time, so don’t feel you need to hold back with them!  

SOURCES: Idealist4Ever, Womans Health, Independent, How stuff works,

IMAGE: Don’t cry my love by Axel Naud

Share Post