Sometimes, the urge to ugly-cry strikes at the worst possible time — at work, at a party, on a date — leaving you no choice but to postpone your sobs until further notice. But since crying isn't exactly something you can pick back up later (say, after work or on a day off), what kind of mark does "sucking it up" leave on your body? Is it bad if you never cried when you felt the need to let it all out?
Crying is essentially a release valve that rids your body of excess stress and tension, so when a sob-fest is on the horizon and you hold it in, your body's sympathetic nervous system (or fight-or-flight response) kicks into gear, says Nicole Van Groningen, M.D., an internist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Your brain signals your adrenal glands to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals boost your heart rate and blood pressure, so if you hold them in while trying not to cry, it can translate into chest tightness and heavy breathing.
"Suppressing an emotion (in this case, frustration or sadness) actually heightens it and makes you feel worse," says psychologist Nikki Martinez, Psy.D. "So while you might think you're distracting yourself, the stress is actually growing," she adds. Occasionally resisting the urge to cry is one thing (blubbering mid-meeting probably wouldn't go over well with the boss), but doing so on the regular gives your body's stress response more opportunities to cause trouble, she adds. In the short term, it can cause pesky problems such as irritability, anxiety, and poor sleep. But over time, repressing your tears can lead to cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension — or even cancer. Yikes.
So if you need to bawl and are able to take a minute, it's in your best interest to go ahead and cry before going back to your regularly scheduled programming, says Dr. Van Groningen. However, if you're in the middle of something and need to put your feels on hold, it's likely that a delayed catharsis can produce similar results. Think: watching an emotional movie and letting it all out. (Or crying while you run!)
Of course, you can't turn your tears on like a faucet — feelings are fickle that way. But you can lower your meltdown quota by learning to release stress as you go along, says Martinez. This doesn't mean screaming at a co-worker on the fly or sniffling your way down the produce aisle as the mood strikes. Simply find a few stress relief techniques that work for you, such as going for a walk, venting to a friend, or listening to music. (And BTW, studies show that indulging in sad tunes can actually make you feel better.)
Sure, crying is super cathartic, but it's not the only way to empty stress from your body. When your tear ducts don't have your best interest at heart, it's essential to make sure the rest of your body does. (Up next: 18 Simple Stress Relievers to Add to Your Mental Health Toolkit)