Sleep should be a peaceful time while the body rests and recharges for the day ahead. However, any number of physical and psychological conditions can interrupt your sleep and cause you to wake up crying.
Sleep-crying at any age can be a very upsetting experience, whether it’s triggered by a nightmare and even if you’re not sure what brought on the crying.
Babies often cry at night simply because they have transitioned from deep sleep to a lighter sleep stage. For adults, a mood disorder or feeling overwhelmed emotionally can trigger tears while sleeping.
There are a wide range of potential causes of waking up crying, some of which can occur in young children and older adults.
Scary dreams are unavoidable, and they can invade your sleeping mind at any age on any night. Though nightmares tend to be more frequent when you’re young, many adults still have nightmares. Nightmares often are related to stress in our lives and may serve as a way of working through upsetting situations from the day or anticipating challenges ahead.
Unlike nightmares, night terrors are experiences that most people don’t recall upon awakening. They can also involve thrashing in bed or sleepwalking.
Also known as sleep terrors, night terrors tend to last from a few seconds to a few minutes, though they may last even longer. About 40 percent of children experience night terrors, while the percentage of adults who have them is much lower.
The sadness that accompanies grieving or mourning a loss can be so overwhelming that it invades your sleep. And if you’re busy dealing with work, family and other responsibilities during the day, the emotions triggered by grief may be released only during sleep.
After a tragic loss, you may not always take the time to grieve in a way that helps you process these feelings. In addition to crying upon waking up and other sleep problems, symptoms of buried or “blocked” grief can include trouble with decision-making, depression, anxiety, and feeling as though you’re weighed down and lacking energy.
Like grief, depression is most commonly associated with feelings of sadness and despair. But unlike grief, which is usually temporary and can often be traced to a specific event like the death of a loved one, depression tends to be a feeling that is more vague and long-lasting.
Among the many potential signs of depression are changes in sleeping and eating habits; withdrawal from friends, family, and activities that were once enjoyable; and unexplained bouts of crying.
Diurnal mood variation
If you tend to be weepy and feel especially low in the morning only to have your outlook improve as the day goes along, you may have a form of depression called diurnal mood variation. Also called morning depression, it appears to be linked to problems with circadian rhythms — the body’s clock that regulates sleep patterns and hormones that affect mood and energy.
Transition between stages of sleep
Throughout the night you pass through five stages of sleep, cycling from lighter sleep to heavier sleep to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and back to a lighter stage again and again.
Most of the time the transitions between sleep stages go unnoticed. In babies and toddlers, however, the transitions can be upsetting, simply because it marks a change in their condition they don’t yet understand or can’t yet ignore.
For instance, if your baby always falls asleep with a bottle and then wakes up in the middle of the night with no bottle, they may cry out because there is something missing in the falling-asleep routine. Your baby may not be fully awake, yet may have a sense that something isn’t normal.
Sleep disorders, such as sleepwalking and REM sleep behavior disorder (a condition in which a person essentially acts out a dream while still asleep — talking and moving, sometimes aggressively), fall under the umbrella term “parasomnia.”
Episodes of parasomnia can occur at any time during the sleep cycle. They tend to run in families, so there may be a genetic cause.
Stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety can affect a child or adult in many ways, including sleep-crying and mood changes. Feeling anxious and not knowing how to manage your feelings may make you cry more frequently than normal, whether it’s when you’re waking up or throughout the day.
Underlying medical condition
Adults may be less likely to wake up crying due to pain or discomfort. But a condition like chronic back pain or cancer can become so severe that you wake up crying.
Certain eye conditions, such as conjunctivitis or allergies, can make your eyes water while you sleep. Though this isn’t crying in the emotional sense, it is a symptom that can increase your tear production.
Mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, tend to be the biggest reason adults wake up crying.
If you haven’t been diagnosed with a disorder, consider waking up crying as an important symptom to discuss with a doctor.
Examine your recent feelings and behaviors and look for changes that could signal a mood disorder. Ask your friends or loved ones if they have noticed any changes related to mood or behavior.
When sleep-crying occurs in older adults, the cause may have more to do with dementia than a mood disorder. However, it could be a combination of factors. Older adults can be more easily overwhelmed by change or emotional stress, so they may cry at night.
Also, physical ailments, such as arthritis or other age-related conditions, may cause so much pain that tears are the result.
If you or an older loved one experiences sleep-crying on a somewhat regular basis, talk with a doctor. A physical or emotional condition may be contributing to this new behavior.
The right treatment for sleep-crying depends on its cause.
If your baby wakes up crying frequently, tell their pediatrician. If sleep stage transitions are to blame, helping your little one fall asleep on their own may make them less likely to have trouble during the night. If the problem is a physical ailment, effectively treating it should make the tears go away.
Older children and adults also should be evaluated for medical conditions or psychological problems if they wake up crying. These people may benefit from seeing a sleep specialist. Nightmares and parasomnia are sleep disorders that can be treated.
If you believe that grief is causing your tears, consider seeing a counselor to share your feelings. Dealing with your grief-related emotions and thoughts during the day may help you sleep better at night.
Children and adults who have signs of depression, anxiety, or stress that is too difficult to manage on their own may benefit from some form of therapy. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a widely used approach that helps a person learn to think differently about a situation to change their emotional and behavioral responses to it.
If you or your child wakes up crying infrequently, it’s not something that demands the attention of a doctor or mental health professional. Most causes of sleep-crying are manageable or will resolve themselves in time.
Children with night terrors tend to outgrow them by the time they reach their teens.
Adults who have night terrors may be more likely to have a psychological condition. While such conditions are serious, they can usually be treated effectively with therapy and support at home.