Crying is entirely normal and healthy, but many of us don’t want to cry in front of other people. Is there anything we can do to save face?
Ad Vingerhoets, the author of Why Only Humans Weep: Unravelling The Mysteries Of Tears, said that there are two distinct components to crying: Sounds of vocal distress and the production of tears. Vingerhoets, a professor of clinical psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, said that distress calls are common among human and animal infants, a product of evolution alerting parents to their offspring’s location and discomfort.
But vocal distress noises can also attract predators. Humans have a prolonged childhood compared to other animals, so perhaps as a protective mechanism, he theorised, we developed tears as a visible way to signal suffering.
When we cry, an emotional stimulus kick-starts a process in the brain and triggers tear release from the lacrimal glands right above your eyes. Prof Vingerhoets said that our reasons for crying change as we age. Children and infants will cry from physical pain, but adults rarely do.
After adolescence, human empathy matures, and adults might cry in reaction to the suffering of others (both in reality and on a screen). Strong positive emotions from a reunion, team victory or moving artistic performance might cause adults to cry, too. But according to Prof Vingerhoets, there are two major consistent triggers for adult crying. “The first is helplessness and powerlessness,” he said. “The second, separation and loss.”
IF YOU ANTICIPATE CRYING
If you identify potentially fraught situations beforehand, you can limit your emotional response, said Lauren Bylsma, an assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Cry before you face conflict: If you’re going into a meeting you are dreading, or know a conversation will turn nasty, deal with your emotions before the fact. “Maybe allow yourself to cry it out beforehand,” Asst Prof Bylsma said. “You’ll be more likely to keep your composure if you’ve already done that.”
Consider the worst-case scenario, and rehearse how to handle it: That way, Asst Prof Bylsma said, you’re prepared to face anything.
Practise keeping the conversation on track: “Avoid emotion escalation,” Asst Prof Bylsma said. “Stick to the facts, and don’t get caught up in a heated emotional argument. You can rehearse what you are going to say and how you are going to say it, so it doesn’t get too heated.”
IF YOU FEEL TEARS COMING
All too often, an emotional situation or conflict catches you unaware. In those cases, there are a few tricks to try for stopping your tears.
Press the emotional reset button with your tongue: “Simply push your tongue to the roof of your mouth and you will instantly stop crying,” said Janine Driver, chief executive of the Body Language Institute in Washington.
Relax your facial muscles: Driver said that your inner eyebrows pull together and up when you are genuinely sad, and that loosening those muscles will “lock up” your tears.
Breathe deeply: Theresa Nguyen, a mindfulness and success coach who founded More Time More You life coaching in Dallas, said that focusing on your breath can help you step away from your emotions – and stop you from saying anything you might regret later. “Take a deep breath in through your nose for four seconds and hold it for two seconds,” Nguyen said. “Then, through pursed lips, breathe out for another eight seconds.”
Give yourself a hard pinch: If you can hide your hands, Driver suggested: “Simply pinch the skin between your thumb and pointer finger and voila, you will instantly stop crying.”
MAKE THE TEARS DISAPPEAR
Once the waterworks have ended, you may well find yourself with a flushed face and red, puffy eyes. Dr Deanne Mraz Robinson, a board-certified dermatologist and founding partner of Modern Dermatology, a dermatology practice in Westport, Connecticut, said that we hold our breath when we cry.
That makes the oxygen levels in our blood drop, turning it a darker shade of red and causing that telltale blotchiness that accompanies a good cry. To get rid of the flush, start by taking big, deep breaths.
“To combat puffy eyes, apply cold to the under eye to help constrict the blood vessels,” Dr Mraz Robinson said. “If you’re at home, wash your face with cold water, or apply an eye mask or a bag of frozen peas from the freezer. If you’re out and about, try wetting your fingers with cold water from the sink and then gently pat under your eyes.”
Dr Rhonda Klein, who co-founded Modern Dermatology, said that a moisturiser containing niacinamide, a form of Vitamin B3 that has anti-inflammatory properties, can help soothe irritated, post-crying skin. She also recommends applying green-toned makeup concealer to neutralise flushing, and using redness-reducing eye drops like Visine.
“You can also apply Afrin – a popular nasal decongestant – topically to the skin to reduce redness,” Dr Klein said. “The active ingredient in Afrin, oxymetazoline, works by constricting blood vessels, blocking blood from travelling to them and therefore reducing redness.”
WHEN TO SEEK HELP
If you think your emotions are regularly getting the best of you, chat with your doctor about it just in case – an underlying condition like depression or anxiety could be causing you to cry a lot.
“There is no specific amount of crying that is a problem,” Asst Prof Bylsma said.
By Nina Bahadur © 2018 The New York Times