We've all had that moment when we've felt a cry bubble up in the back of our throats — but the tears just won't come out. It can be mystifying that the human body can be so good at crying sometimes (breakups, graduations, heart-tugging commercials on TV) and just dries up at others. Therapists tell Bustle that there are often complex reasons why you can't cry — and while they can be physical, they often have to do with our emotional states, our beliefs about crying and vulnerability, or past traumas.
Science says that it's not technically possible for humans to run out of tears, even after a lengthy crying session. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, we produce around 15 to 30 gallons of tears per year, the majority of which are designed to lubricate our eyes or flush out harmful materials. The eye needs to remain constantly wet to work properly, so our tear-producing glands are on full alert at all times. That said, there can be clinical issues that inhibit tear production. We produce fewer tears as we age, and there are various eye surgeries and medical conditions that can inhibit the tear ducts. Inflammation, certain medications like antidepressants and hormonal birth controls, eyelid disorders and diabetes have all been shown to impede tear production and produce dry eye.
But absent a medical condition, you're probably wondering why there are some times that you just can't cry even though you really want to. If physical issues with the tear glands aren't the issue, the source of crying difficulties likely lies somewhere else — and it's very common. "As a therapist, I have heard this statement many times from my patients over the years," psychotherapist Annie Wright, LMFT, tells Bustle. Depression can be a factor, as it can cause people to experience emotional changes. Clinical depression, Wright says, can come with "a flattened affect that doesn't allow people to physically feel their feelings (despite a mental conception that they should feel sad)". This challenges a myth about depression — that it just means feeling sad all the time — when, in reality, some people with depression don't connect with their emotions at all.
In some cases, even identifying the urge to cry can be a challenge. Psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig L.C.S.W tells Bustle that emotional crying requires being in touch with your feelings, and people who repress or disconnect from their emotions may not recognize their internal triggers for tears. "We may not realize that we’re sad, because we are not attuned to our emotions," she says. "We may know that something uncomfortable is going on within, but not be able to label it as sadness."
Some people may struggle with crying because of internalized shame about tears. "If we believe crying is a healthy, useful, natural, appropriate relief of emotional tension, we might let the tears flow," Koenig tells Bustle. "If we believe people who cry are 'weak,' that it’s scary being vulnerable, and that it’s shameful to cry, we are likely to inhibit a crying response." People can absorb these notions about crying during childhood, from their parents and other adults around them. "Many trauma survivors have difficulty crying because they were shamed when they cried, so now they view it as maladaptive," Koenig tells Bustle. If you have a relative or role model who always held in their sadness and very rarely cried, or were always told off when you cried yourself, this may influence your crying behavior in adulthood.
Inhibitions about crying can also be influenced by cultural beliefs, Wright tells Bustle. If you come from a social background or culture where crying is not viewed as acceptable, you'll likely struggle to express yourself via crying when you feel emotions. Social taboos around men crying, for instance, can make men hesitant to express vulnerability and negative emotions via a few good tears. Tears express vulnerability, so if we're in situations where we're afraid to be vulnerable, we may find ourselves scared to cry despite strong emotional reasons to do so.
All criers are also not created equal. While some people cry at the drop of a hat, others may not respond to emotional stimuli in the same way. Professor Ad Vingerhoets, a clinical psychologist who has researched crying extensively, notes that people may cry less than others for several emotional reasons. Infrequent criers may experience fewer intense emotional events in their lives, appraise these emotional events differently, or are simply more able to control their tears. Infrequent crying doesn't mean that you're a monster; it means that your emotional register of crying-worthy events may differ from other people.
For some people, crying can be difficult — even when there's a very good reason to bawl. Koenig and Wright advise going to a therapist if your inability to cry is worrying you; you may want to examine your emotional life in order to make crying come more naturally. "There are often complex reasons why someone might experience an inability to cry, and it behooves anyone who is experiencing this to first get an exam from their primary care physician to rule out any underlying physiological causes," Wright tells Bustle.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Annie Wright L.M.F.T., psychotherapist
Karen R. Koenig L.C.S.W, M.Ed, psychotherapist