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 mistaken 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 (help you to wash out any irritations to your eyes from foreign particles or vapours)
- psychic/emotional tears (produced in response to strong emotions)
The psychic or emotional tears occur when stress, pleasure, anger, sadness and suffering (or physical pain) is registered in the cerebrum. It triggers the endocrine system to release hormones to the eye area which causes tears to form. These tears actually contain a natural painkiller, leucine enkephalin. Along with tears, 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 process 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 for long periods of time releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, otherwise known as endorphins. These feel-good chemicals can help ease both physical and emotional pain. Once the endorphins are released, your body may go into somewhat of a numb stage. Oxytocin can give you a sense of calm or well-being. It’s another example of how crying is a self-soothing action.’
- 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.
- ‘Emotional tears contain stress hormones and other toxins. Researchers have theorised that crying flushes these things out of your system, (though more research is needed in this area)’.
- ‘Crying may be one of your best mechanisms to self-soothe. Researchers have found that crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS helps your body rest and digest. The benefits aren’t immediate, however. It may take several minutes of shedding tears before you feel the soothing effects of crying.’
- It shows your strength. Showing your emotions by crying infront of someone takes a strong person (as does having PTSD!).
- ‘Along with helping you ease pain, crying, specifically sobbing, may even lift your spirits. When you sob, you take in many quick breaths of cool air. Breathing in cooler air can help regulate and even lower the temperature of your brain. A cool brain is more pleasurable to your body and mind than a warm brain. As a result, your mood may improve after a sobbing episode.’
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 are a positive representation of who we are. It demonstrates not only our deep emotional connections with our world – past, present, and future – but allows us to visibly celebrate that fact. They are also scientifically proven to make you feel better. So go on and wear your tears with pride.’
What if you can’t cry?
‘Do you sometimes want to cry but just can’t? You feel that prickly sensation behind your eyes but tears still won’t fall.
Maybe you never feel like crying at all, even when facing extremely unpleasant or distressing circumstances. Others around you cry, but for you, the tears just don’t come.
If you can’t shed any tears, you might wonder why you have trouble crying.’
There are some medical conditions and medications that prevent people from crying, along with environmental factors – but for some people with PTSD, the emotional ‘numbness’ they can experience can account for the lack of tears.
Some symptoms of depression (which often accompanies PTSD), along with repressed emotions and a loss of interest and pleasure in social activities or physical sensations (often called anhedonia) can cause an inability to cry. Also, ‘if you believe crying exposes your vulnerability or suggests weakness, you might hold back your tears intentionally. Eventually, you may not even have to make an effort to keep yourself from crying — it just doesn’t happen.
An inability to cry can also develop as a learned behaviour. If family members and loved ones never cry, you may never learn to see crying as a natural form of emotional expression.’
‘Some people cry more easily than others, and that’s normal. People are different, so it stands to reason that emotional expression varies from person to person.
If you can’t cry at all, you might have a hard time working through your own emotions, and you could also find it tough to connect with others.
In the end, crying is normal, so don’t worry about trying to hold those tears back — they’re completely natural.’
If you are concerned though, that you are too tearful, if you find that your crying is extreme or starting to interfere with your everyday life, crying for no reason or you have worries over your mood, your GP will always be happy to chat with you in confidence.
NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
- WHY DO WE CRY? THE SCIENCE OF TEARS
- Gračanin, A., Bylsma, L. M., & Vingerhoets, A. J. (2014). Is crying a self-soothing behavior?. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 502. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00502
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
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