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Reviewed by Beth Pausic, Psy.D.
Written by Our Editorial Team
You’re sitting on the subway, minding your own business, when suddenly you find yourself sobbing into your oat latte. Or, maybe you burst into tears out of nowhere while telling a friend about your day. It’s rattling, confusing and it might even be a little embarrassing.
Now, we’ll never advocate for stifling your feelings or blocking out all negative emotions. In fact, crying can be a perfectly healthy way to release tension and move through stress or sadness.
But, if crying spells or unexplained crying are part of your daily life — or even if they’re just a semi-regular part of life — we totally get it if you’re over it and seeking answers.
What might feel like crying for no apparent reason might point to something bigger going on with your mental health that deserves a closer look — and we can help.
If you’ve been asking yourself why in the world you seem to be crying for no reason, we’re here to talk you through some possible causes and helpful ways to cope.
While you may feel like your tears are unprompted, it’s worth investigating the potential underlying issues, triggers and contributing factors for these mystifying crying spells.
Excessive crying or uncontrollable crying may just be random, but they can often be a sign of a mental health issue or a neurological condition. And because tears for any reason — even when they’re seemingly for no reason at all — can impact your quality of life, it’s important that you don’t ignore them.
Some possible reasons for crying for “no reason” include:
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
Read on to learn more about each of these possible causes.
More than 40 million Americans (that’s almost 20 percent of the adult population) are affected by an anxiety disorder of some kind, according to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
And while it’s normal to experience anxiety in stressful situations (looking at you, first dates and Zoom interviews), people with anxiety disorders tend to experience persistent, often severe anxiety that can seep into all corners of their lives, often outside of normally stressful situations.
While each of the five main anxiety disorders have their own related symptoms, they are all challenging — which might cue the tears.
Types of anxiety disorders include:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). If your anxiety is difficult to manage more often than not over a six-month period of time, you may be dealing with generalized anxiety disorder.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is marked by repetitive thoughts and compulsive behaviors related to your daily routines, social interactions and habits.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who experience traumatic events — like a natural disaster, sexual assault, or military service — may develop PTSD.
Social anxiety disorder. People with social anxiety disorder feel intensely afraid of social situations.
Although anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only about 36.9 percent of people dealing with them receive treatment.
So, if any of the above symptoms accompany your tears, it’s worth talking to your healthcare provider to get some clarity (a virtual mental health assessment might also be a good place to start).
In a survey conducted in January 2021, the average stress level of adults in the U.S. was a 5.6 on a scale of 1 to 10, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). A bit more recently, a 2022 report by the APA found that about a third of adults (34 percent) reported that their stress is completely overwhelming most days. We feel you.
Emotional stress, both short-term (i.e. day-to-day stressors like commute traffic, fighting with a partner or work woes) and chronic, is more or less unavoidable. So when we experience these various forms of stress, we might internalize our feelings and carry on with our lives. What other choice do we really have?
But more often than not, that stress will show up somewhere else. For one, stress may manifest as seemingly unrelated emotions like detachment, resentment, anger or — yep — feelings of sadness.
When we’re stressed, we often have shorter fuses, less patience and less compassion — both for ourselves and for others. If you’re experiencing mood swings or emotional outbursts, or are bursting into tears out of nowhere, you might want to pause and take stock of what’s been weighing on you lately.
Stress may also manifest as physical symptoms, including:
Neck, back and shoulder pain
Loss of libido
Grief can be understood as the emotional response to a significant loss.
Everyone grieves differently and has a different idea of what constitutes a significant loss, which means that there’s no standard for what type of loss is significant enough to cause grief — and there’s no right or wrong way to mourn that loss.
While one of the primary feelings associated with grief is sadness (of course), you might also experience an array of other associated emotions like loneliness, anxiety and exhaustion. These could all very well lead to unexplained crying episodes over the course of your grief journey.
Depression is a mood disorder that can negatively affect your feelings, thoughts and daily life.
And it’s common. The 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that more than 21 million adults in the U.S. experienced at least one major depressive episode during the previous year.
While it’s normal to feel down from time to time, the symptoms of depression persist and may impact most aspects of your life — unlike a bad mood, which will typically pass on its own.
These symptoms can severely impact things like your ability to work, socialize or even complete daily tasks like cleaning or getting dressed.
There’s no single “cause” of clinical depression, but the medical community believes it’s at least partly associated with low levels of certain neurotransmitters whose job it is to convey information between neurons in your brain.
In particular, depression symptoms appear to be associated with lower levels of serotonin, which is known as the “happy hormone.” It makes sense then that depression may be linked to unexpected crying.
Symptoms of depression include:
Constant feelings of sadness, anxiety or hopelessness
Feeling irritable, helpless or worthless
Low energy or tiredness
Physical symptoms, like changes in weight
Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, suicide
If you’re experiencing any signs of depression, you should reach out to a mental health professional. There are proven steps that you can take to treat the symptoms of depression and work toward a full recovery, from medications to therapy to changes to your habits and lifestyle.
Which brings us back to taking note of your emotions and seeking help to understand what’s happening.
Hormones and emotions are inextricably linked. During hormonal changes and fluctuations — for example, during pregnancy, around your period or during menopause — it’s common to experience mood swings, and even crying spells.
While over 90 percent of women experience some premenstrual symptoms, a somewhat lower number — estimates range from 20 to 75 percent — experience true premenstrual syndrome, or PMS. In addition to physical symptoms, this syndrome can involve feelings of sadness, irritability and reduced interest in certain parts of life.
A much smaller percentage of women of childbearing age (roughly five percent) have premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which causes heightened sensitivity to hormone spikes during the week before menstruation.
Those with PMDD often suffer from debilitating symptoms that affect them before and during their period. Severe mood swings — yes, including frequent crying — are a common symptom of PMDD, and many symptoms of premenstrual dysphoric disorder are similar to the signs of major depressive disorder in women.
Pseudobulbar affect is a condition involving involuntary, sudden and/or frequent episodes of laughing or crying that appear unrelated to what’s going on in the moment.
This syndrome, which is linked to brain damage from a neurologic disease or traumatic brain injury, is sometimes misdiagnosed as a mood disorder.
It affects somewhere between two and seven million people in the United States.
If you find yourself crying for no reason, you don’t have to endure stares on the subway or go through endless boxes of tissues alone. While there are many evidence-backed lifestyle changes and other techniques you can use on your own, there are also a variety of options that a mental health professional can provide.
Speak to a healthcare professional. As we’ve already discussed, sometimes our bodies give us clues to something going on with our mental health. It’s important to see a healthcare provider regularly so that they become familiar with your medical history and can point you in the right direction if something doesn’t feel right.
See a psychiatrist and being open to medication. If you find yourself crying for no reason and think it may be due to depression, anxiety, PMDD or another disorder, the first step in getting treatment is to speak with a mental health professional. A virtual mental health assessment is a good place to start.
Consider going to therapy. Whether in-person or online therapy, speaking with a therapist is a helpful way to address a wide array of mental health challenges. Depending on what’s going on, you can explore different therapy styles like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
Be open to medication. Medication, specifically antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, is another treatment option for depression and anxiety. Commonly prescribed antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and more. Prescription anti-anxiety medications include SSRIs, beta-blockers and benzodiazepines. If you’re diagnosed with PMDD, your provider may suggest birth control pills to help regulate your hormones. In some instances, they may prescribe antidepressants to help manage PMDD.
Seek out community. It can be incredibly empowering — and enlightening — to connect with other people about mental health challenges and life experiences. Our anonymous support groups are free, entirely confidential and a low-pressure way to start addressing hard-to-talk-about issues.
It’s always a good idea to have some tools in your box that help you calm down, work through big emotions and keep doing your thing. Some of our go-to coping skills for mental health include:
Doing breathing exercises. Breathing is the source of life, so let’s do it with intention, shall we? Breathing techniques can help provide stress relief and calm you down.
Physical activity. Long walks, sweaty runs, ambling hikes, yoga — whatever strikes your fancy, try to get out there and do more of it.
Learning about mental health. Knowledge is power and it can make exploring your mental health a lot less intimidating.
Practicing self-care. Journaling, bubble baths, cozy time tea — oh my! Self-care is personal, but it should be non-negotiable.
Opening up to others. Isolation makes life’s struggles even harder to shoulder. Connecting with loved ones is crucial.
Avoiding alcohol or drugs. Resist the temptation to numb out. Alcohol and drugs tend to exacerbate things.
As is so often the case, solving a problem and getting better first requires paying attention and acknowledging that something might be wrong. When it comes to crying for no reason, it’s important to remember:
Crying is not the enemy, but uncontrollable crying or crying out of nowhere is not something you want to get too used to.
The cause of these crying episodes might not be immediately obvious or even directly related. Rather, your tears might point to an underlying issue or mental health condition that needs to be addressed, like chronic stress, depressive disorder, anxiety or premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
In this light, we can see those salty swells of emotion (a.k.a crying) as welcome clues, little flags of sharper awareness and tuned-in attention, helping us work toward finding a fuller sense of well-being.
Ready to take the next step? Schedule a consultation with a mental health provider now and start finding the meaning behind all that crying for no reason.
Dr. Beth Pausic is a clinical psychologist and oversees the therapy platform at Hims & Hers.
Prior to Hims & Hers, Beth worked in senior roles at several behavioral healthcare startups focused on the digital delivery of emotional support and treatment through both conventional and innovative approaches.
Her experience prior to working in telebehavioral health includes over 15 years as a Clinical Administrator and provider in diverse clinical settings. In her clinical work, she primarily focused on anxiety, depression and relationships.
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