Why Can't I Stop Crying?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated May 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Crying may be a natural response to emotions for many. You may cry while watching a sad movie, after a difficult loss, or when you feel extreme happiness. There are many reasons one might cry, but the physical release of tears can be a healthy and important response to sensitivity, feeling overwhelmed, or experiencing profound emotions. It may lessen stress in the body and release endorphins that make you feel better. 

Despite the often-healthy nature of crying, it may feel distressing or confusing to some when it feels like you can't stop. If you can't stop crying, it may impact your life. In some cases, it is a symptom of a mental health condition, or even a nervous system condition called pseudobulbar affect. Knowing when crying can signify a need for support could be advantageous in your healing journey. 

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What is causing these tears?

Although there is nothing wrong with crying and no set amount of crying that is considered unhealthy, you might find your tears interfering with daily functioning. In some cases, you may not be able to control it. However, when paired with symptoms like a persistent low mood, negative emotions, difficulty getting out of bed, or irritability, uncontrollable crying might also be a sign of depression or another underlying cause.

Depressive disorders 

Conditions like major depressive disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and postpartum depression might be one of the main reasons that people cry. Not everyone with depression experiences crying. Some may experience the opposite through emotional numbness or another emotional response. However, if it coincides with other depressive symptoms, you may choose to connect with a professional to seek treatment or evaluation.

Common symptoms of depression include: 

  • A persistent low mood or profound feelings of sadness
  • Irritability 
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Changes in weight
  • Crying episodes or frequent crying
  • A lack of interest in activities you previously enjoyed 
  • Difficulty with personal hygiene 
  • Inability to focus
  • Difficulty with executive function (cleaning, chores, etc.) 
  • Suicidal thoughts, urges, or behaviors* 

Depression is often associated with anxiety disorders, so crying may also accompany anxious feelings or other emotions. Whether you're experiencing mild or severe depressive symptoms, consider reaching out to a medical professional for support if you have an anxiety disorder and are experiencing uncontrollable crying. 

Other related mental health conditions

Depression is not necessarily the only mental health condition that might lead to crying often. Bipolar disorder, mood disorders, personality disorders, anxiety disorders, trauma disorders, or certain neurological conditions may also cause emotional lability or crying symptoms. Major hormonal changes can also result in unusual emotional activity, with some disorders including symptoms like emotional dysregulation, which may cause crying. Bipolar disorder and some mood disorders also include depression as a symptom.  

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Stress and grief 

High-stress levels may lead to crying spells or crying uncontrollably and other potentially undesirable symptoms or health outcomes. If you feel overwhelmed, you may be experiencing stress or mental burnout.

Grief can also cause frequent crying. Depression and sadness are often listed as a stage of the grieving process. You can grieve someone you've lost to death, a breakup, or life circumstances. In these cases, crying can be healthy and relieving. 

Pseudobulbar affect 

Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) is a neurological condition characterized by frequent crying spells in which a person may have difficulty stopping crying. If you happen to experience uncontrollable and uncomfortable tears, laughter, or fits of anger during unemotional or unrelated events where you should have a normal reaction, you might be experiencing this neurological disorder. Often, the involuntary crying or laughter caused by PBA is unrelated to how a person truly feels. For example, they might cry during a happy moment or laugh during a sad one. 

Pseudobulbar affect often results from injury to the part of the brain that controls emotions and facial muscles. A person diagnosed with PBA may have experienced a severe brain injury or neurological conditions such as stroke, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease), or multiple sclerosis (MS). It most commonly occurs in ALS patients, with a prevalence rate of PBA as high as 38.5% in those with ALS.

People who live with PBA could be misdiagnosed with a mental health condition like an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder. However, this condition is neurological. Delaying treatment could be harmful. If you believe you're experiencing this effect, consider reaching out to a neuropsychologist or neurologist for testing and medical advice. 

An emotional expression that isn't representative of how someone feels may feel embarrassing or frustrating and can disrupt daily life or cause self-esteem issues. Often, PBA can be treated through the support of a medical professional or a mental health therapist. 

Emotional incontinence

One condition, called emotional incontinence, refers to the inability to control one's emotional reactions. Individuals who experience this condition may be prone to sudden and intense outbursts of emotion, such as anger, frustration, or sadness. They may not be able to control their emotions healthily and instead lash out at those around them or feel overwhelmed by their reactions.

Emotional incontinence can be rooted in a variety of health causes. It is often linked to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety as well as trauma or abuse experienced in the past as a child or adult. In addition to these more physical causes, environmental factors can also contribute to emotional incontinence. Those who experience chronic stress due to work or personal relationships may find their emotions harder to control, and they may be prone to sudden outbursts of anger or sadness. Additionally, neglecting self-care, such as lack of sleep or poor nutrition, can lead to major hormonal changes, which may make it more difficult for people to control their emotions.

Excessive crying: When should I seek help?

Crying can be healthy. To cry is to relieve the body of stress and feel relief. However, if you're crying excessively, experiencing thoughts of self-harm, or your crying doesn't match up with how you feel, you might find that it's blocking you from experiencing joy. 

If you don't understand the reason you're crying, it may benefit you to see a medical provider who can provide testing or a referral to a psychologist. Mental health conditions or neurological causes may be having a negative impact on your overall health. When the cause is determined, your doctor may discuss your treatment options. 

Treatment for mental health conditions

Medication and therapy may be recommended to treat a mental health condition like depression, which is often cited as highly treatable by medically reviewed studies. Before starting, stopping, or changing a medication or treatment regimen, consult with your prescribing doctor. 

Several therapeutic modalities may help improve mood and well-being, especially if underlying issues are at play. One common, heavily researched form of therapy used to treat depression, anxiety, and other common mental health conditions is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a goal-focused therapy. According to a study by Ellen Driessen, M.Sc., and Steven D. Hollon, Ph.D., CBT is an effective treatment for acute depression and can be used as an alternative to antidepressants for some. Some evidence shows that CBT could positively affect cognition and help prevent symptom relapse for longer periods.

While crying can result from sadness and despair, it may also be a self-soothing behavior. Crying often isn't necessarily unhealthy and doesn’t pose any immediate danger or emotional health risks. However, if you feel it is harming or disrupting your life, you might try mental health treatment, advice, diagnosis, or emotional control skills with a mental health professional. They may also allow you an outlet to safely process your emotions. 

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How to support yourself 

In addition to mental health treatment or other interventions, personal or at-home self-care options may benefit you. These practices could include:

  • Practicing sleep hygiene
  • Exercising or partaking in physical activity, like yoga
  • Eating consistent healthy meals 
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Taking deep breaths and practicing relaxation techniques
  • Read or write a nursery rhyme 
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Turning to coping skills when needed 
  • Maintaining or establishing an emotional support system
  • Laughing with a friend or family member

The right therapist or counselor with relevant experience can support you through emotional problems and find a self-care strategy that serves you with your circumstances and individual needs in mind. These professionals can get a sense of your unique situation and assist. Through online therapy, you may be able to receive support, advice, diagnosis, or treatment during a time of day that works for you so that you can receive the support that you need.

Alternative therapy options 

If you're interested in talk therapy or another form of counseling, you might be interested in looking outside your community for support. Some individuals experience barriers to treatment, such as a lack of options, high insurance co-pays, or inflexible treatment options.  

If you relate, online counseling may benefit you. Studies show that online mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy is productive and as effective as traditional therapy in treating conditions such as anxiety or depression. As CBT often teaches new behavioral techniques and ways to manage emotions, it may benefit your unwanted crying. 

Consider getting started by signing up for an online platform, such as BetterHelp, which offers a growing database of licensed and trained counselors who specialize in various areas of mental healthcare.  

Takeaway 

If you find that you're asking yourself why you can't stop crying, you may want to seek assistance. Though it's not always the case, excessive crying can indicate a mood disorder like depression. However, these disorders are treatable and can be addressed with professional support. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist, even if just for a few minutes of consultation. They may be able to give you the tools to better understand and control your emotional responses.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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