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You can’t believe what you’re hearing. It’s unfair; it’s untrue. You open your mouth to speak up, your face flushes, your throat constricts… and cue the sting of infuriating tears.
Why does this keep happening? Why do you cry when what you’re actually feeling is fury?
Here’s what we know about the reasons behind the normal human phenomenon of angry tears, and what you can do to dry them when the timing is all wrong.
The most immediate reason for angry tears is probably that you feel hurt, embarrassed, betrayed, or unjustly treated. When people experience injustice, rejection, or humiliation, the natural response includes both anger and sadness — often simultaneously.
Tearful crying is a uniquely human activity, and scientists believe it may serve an evolutionary function: a distress signal used to summon help and provoke helping behaviors in others.
Crying releases oxytocin and prolactin
Researchers have found that crying stimulates the release of oxytocin and
But crying doesn’t always serve a self-comforting function.
If you cried and were comforted, your mood is likely to improve. If, on the other hand, you cried and felt shamed or embarrassed by it, the tears probably won’t have improved your mood.
Children and women are more likely to cry than adult men
Children are more likely to cry than adults, and females are more likely to cry than males. A
And while we cry because of major life events that cause us grief or profound joy, we just as often cry because of ordinary, daily frustrations and conflicts.
If women shed more angry tears than men do, it may be because in the United States and many Western cultures, women have often been socialized to display more positive emotions and internalize feelings that some perceive as negative, like anger.
When you get mad (even if you don’t cry), here’s what happens in your body:
- Your amygdala, hypothalamus, and pituitary gland work together to produce a surge of cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones).
- Your heart rate and blood pressure amp up.
- You may feel warm or flushed.
- Your mouth may feel dry and your palms may feel damp.
- Your field of vision might narrow.
- Cortisol may cause your short-term memory to falter (that’s why you keep forgetting what you want to say in a heated conversation).
With the burst of nervous system and hormonal activity, is it any wonder that your body produces tears?
As normal as it is to respond with genuine emotion when provoked, it’s not always appropriate to cry in the midst of a conflict. Here are some steps you can take to prevent or manage the flow of tears when you feel it’s not the right time to share them.
Develop a journaling practice
People write not only to express what they’re feeling, but to discover what they’re feeling. For many people, privately writing about emotionally charged events is a way to process complex emotions and regain a sense of perspective.
Regular journaling gives you a personal space to vent, review, and consider what you want or need.
If you develop this habit now, when a conflict arises, you’ll be aware that you have a safe place to go that belongs entirely to you.
Practice articulating what you need
In some cultures and for some individuals, clearly and directly voicing concerns or needs is difficult, especially in professional settings.
Small group assertiveness training can help you learn more about saying yes, saying no, defining boundaries, and communicating in high-conflict situations.
Learn more about managing emotions and speaking your mind
Here’s a list of books you may find helpful for setting boundaries, negotiating, and addressing conflict:
- Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
- Living Nonviolent Communication: Practical Tools to Connect and Communicate Skillfully in Every Situation by Marshall Rosenburg, PhD
- No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy
You can find these books at most public libraries or click the links above to purchase online.
Move, but slowly
If you feel your emotions rising, change your physical position as a way of grounding yourself and shifting your mindset.
Stand up. Sit down. Pick up a pen and make a note or step down the hallway if you need time to collect your thoughts. Try something as simple as clenching and releasing a muscle — 2011 research found that it can give you renewed sense of self-control.
As you move, try to remember to go slowly. You’re reminding yourself that just as you have power over where your limbs are in space, you have power to calm your emotions.
You’re reminding yourself to slow the interaction so you can think beyond the impulse to fight, flee, or freeze.
Even mild dehydration can affect your mood and your thinking ability. If you’re in an emotional situation, stop and drink a glass of cool water.
- lower cortisol (stress hormone)
- lower your heart rate
- increase alertness
In tense situations, focusing on your breath can help regulate strong feelings and re-center you.
Health professionals say concentrating on the flow of air into and out of your body can help you:
- restore alertness
- lower your body temperature
- release muscle tension
- regulate your autonomic nervous system
There are times when it’s counterproductive to cry (driving along a serpentine cliffside road, for example). But it’s also worth noting that crying plays an important role in emotional health.
Finding safe and appropriate places to let your feelings — and your tears — flow can be a good thing. You are the best judge of when and where you need to cry, but here’s a list of places many people find solace in releasing their emotions:
- on a solitary walk
- in a therapist’s office
- as you’re privately journaling
- with close family members and supportive friends
- with your pet
- in the shower or bath
- where you go to meditate, pray, or enjoy nature alone
Crying when you’re angry doesn’t mean you’re weak, out of control, or mentally ill. It’s a logical human response to emotional stimuli.
If you cry more frequently than you’d like, or if angry tears are interfering with your ability to function normally, it may be a good idea to talk with a therapist about it.
Excessive crying may be a sign that you’re depressed or anxious, and there are many effective treatments that can restore a sense of balance to your emotional life.
Lots of people cry when they feel frustrated, angry, or embarrassed. When you get mad, your body produces a flood of hormones that stimulate strong reactions in your body — everything from a racing heart to sweaty palms to short-term memory loss.
In response to the elevated stress level, you may cry. That response could alert others to your emotional vulnerability and eventually cause the release of more hormones to calm your body back down.
If you want to work on decreasing your angry tears — at least when it’s not likely to serve you well — you could try journaling, assertiveness training, or mindful breathing.
In a heated moment, you could also try moving, drinking water, or clenching and releasing your muscles to give you a greater sense of control.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with crying when you’re mad. But if you feel it’s interfering with your work life or personal life, or if you think you may be depressed, you may want to talk with a therapist who can help you balance your emotions.