When my cat died earlier this year, I could not figure out how to stop crying. My eyes were like a pair of overfilled buckets, slopping tears wherever I went — the Q train, Trader Joe’s, the dry cleaners. I now know what it’s like to cry upside down because I’ve done it during downward dog in a yoga class. At first, I just let it happen. I really loved that cat. After a few weeks, though, the constant sniffling got to be too much. I wanted to stop, but my eyes did not.
In the months since, there have been a lot more things to cry about. But I’ve also needed to keep it together — in front of children, on the phone with an anxious parent, during a Zoom meeting, or just because I didn’t feel like dissolving in the middle of the afternoon. “Indeed, sometimes tears come at very inconvenient and inappropriate moments,” said Ad Vingerhoets, a clinical psychologist who is one of the world’s foremost researchers on human crying. There haven’t been any notable studies on how to stop crying, he said, but he did have a few suggestions.
First, though, a quick word on the upside of crying: I worried that bottling up my tears might cause me to backlog grief over time. But Vingerhoets assured me that tears don’t actually release stress hormones or “cleanse” the body of anything. “Our research has found no indication that crying in itself is actually cathartic or beneficial to our health,” he said. In a study comparing people who cry regularly with people who cry rarely, Vingerhoets did not find any difference in subjective well-being between the two groups. In fact, his research team found that many people actually feel worse after they cry, especially if they don’t receive any consolation.
Crying does, of course, have a positive function. It communicates distress and invites other people to offer comfort, which is ultimately helpful — in the right situation, says Vingerhoets. He and his colleagues have also discovered that people who cry regularly tend to have more intimate relationships. “We found that normal criers were more empathic, felt more connected to others, and also received more emotional support,” he said. But if you’re not in a place where that’s likely to happen, here are some ways to hold off your tears.
1. If you can, get a change of scene.
“If you literally create distance between yourself and the environment where you are experiencing the emotion, it can help diminish that emotion and your response to it,” said Vingerhoets. In psychological terms, this is known as “situation modification”; in plain English, it’s “getting a change of scene.” Go get a coffee. Go walk around the block. Go sit in a bathroom stall for a couple of minutes. This is a classic technique in emotional self-regulation and can be deployed in all kinds of overwhelming situations, not just tearful ones.
2. Distract yourself.
Focus on something active and unrelated to what’s making you cry. “You want to try to put yourself in a state that is incompatible with crying, like dancing or laughing,” says Vingerhoets. “Obviously, dancing or laughing when you are crying is not easy to do, but some quick exercise, like jumping, might help.” (Thankfully, he does not advise that you just “relax,” as it is “associated with increased parasympathetic activation” — which, roughly translated, means you could wind up crying more.)
3. If it’s getting out of hand, talk to a doctor.
Very low doses of certain types of antidepressants (namely SSRIs) have been shown to decrease rates of crying in healthy trial subjects, as well as people who suffer from uncontrollable tears (also known as pathological criers). In one study, Vingerhoets and his colleagues showed a sad movie to a group of female university students; before starting the movie, half of the subjects took a placebo drug, and the other half took a low dose of an SSRI. Those who received the placebo cried more than the ones who didn’t. “Very, very low doses of these substances seemed to be very effective in this instance,” he said.
4. Remind yourself that you can cry later.
“This is known as ‘delayed crying,’ and it’s a very common phenomenon,” says Vingerhoets. “For example, many people will inhibit their tears in the workplace and then, when they go home, discuss what happened with their partner or a friend or a parent and the tears start flowing.”
5. Experiment with different tactics. They might work!
When I brought my dying cat to the vet, I didn’t want to fall apart in the waiting room. So I stared at a dog poster on the wall and repeated to myself, “Keep it together, keep it together, keep it together,” like a mantra. Somehow, I managed to stay dry-eyed until I got back to my apartment. An ER-doctor friend of mine told me she uses a similar strategy. “I literally tell myself, ‘Stop crying, stop crying, stop crying,’ over and over again,” she said. “It’s almost meditative, and it works.”
When I polled other people, each had their own methods — watching The Office, writing down stream-of-consciousness thoughts, or taking showers. “I throw things, like pillows or clothes,” said one friend. “If I’m not at home, I’ll just aggressively throw stuff in the trash.”
Vingerhoets was aware of various strategies working for some people. “I have heard, anecdotally, that pinching the nose, or pinching the area between the thumb and pointer finger, or pushing your tongue on the roof of your mouth can help stop crying,” he said. “But I have no idea whether that’s really effective. It probably depends on the individual.” Still, it’s worth a shot.