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Why Can’t I Cry? Physical & Emotional Causes and Treatment

You might hear the word “crying” and associate it with pain, sadness, and discomfort. However, crying is extremely important for human health. When you’re unable to cry, it can have a serious impact on your psychological well-being and physical health.

Crying can help you calm yourself in moments of distress, signal to others that you need support, and provide pain relief by boosting your circulation of feel-good hormones.

If you have strong memories of crying hard at a funeral or after an injury, you might be surprised to learn that crying can also relieve stress and boost your mood, even if it feels very different at the time. And these aren’t the only benefits of tears.

So why do some people feel like crying, but the tears won’t come? We explore the root causes of an inability to cry, the effect this can have on your body and mind, why crying is important, and how to stimulate crying in the future.

Why can’t I cry? 10 possible causes

“I want to cry but I can’t”

As important as crying is, some people find it difficult or impossible. But there are both emotional and physiological reasons for an inability to cry.

In either case, medical interventions and other options can help you reconnect with your crying mechanisms — and the feelings behind them.

Emotional or psychological reasons you may be unable to cry

Just as mental health difficulties and social stimuli can cause you to cry, they can also prevent you from crying when you feel like you need to. Given how restorative crying can be, this can create complications in your emotional and physical health.

1. Depression with melancholia

In the U.S., 17.3 million people had a major depressive episode during 2017, when statistics were last compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health. An astounding 264 million people live with depression worldwide.

The condition can present in several ways, and one person might encounter completely different symptoms than the next. Some people experience a particularly severe subtype known as melancholic depression.

To the uninitiated, depression might seem like debilitating sadness. But melancholic depression has the following characteristics:

You might have the strange sensation that a switch has flicked and your emotions have been deactivated. Joyful events may not excite you like they used to. It may not be as easy to cry about things that usually spark sadness. If you’ve been wondering why you can’t cry, melancholic depression may be your answer.

2. Repressed emotions

“Why can’t I make tears?”

Some people bury their feelings and avoid confronting painful, sad, or traumatic emotions. These people may not regularly cry, or, in some cases, haven’t cried for years.

This isn’t a medical condition. It’s the foundation some people have built their personalities on. It may start as a deliberate defense mechanism and become a knee-jerk response to damaging or troubling stimuli over time.

Some people may build a wall around their emotions in response to a traumatic or life-changing event like a death in the family, or a divorce.

A lifetime of repressing your emotions might mean crying isn’t your standard response to upsetting events or emotional triggers.

3. Social stigmas in your development or social group

For some people, the repression of tearful reactions can be linked to childhood events. If your family or group of friends wasn’t emotionally open, you may have taken on some of those characteristics.

Your personal beliefs around crying might have shaped your ability to weep — intentionally or otherwise. The reason you can’t cry may be your beliefs about what crying means.

It can be difficult to show vulnerability if you believe it’s a sign of weakness, or if others have transferred feelings of shame onto you around expressing emotion. This may not be a conscious choice. Years of habit might mean crying just isn’t part of your emotional toolkit.

4. Anhedonia

Many people with a mental health condition like depression find that they lose interest in activities and sensations that used to bring them joy. This is known as anhedonia.

Similar to melancholia, anhedonia can reduce your ability or inclination to express how you feel — including through crying. Reaching that emotional peak might be difficult or impossible for people with depression.

Medical reasons for an inability to cry

Despite the crucial role mental health plays in your ability to cry, medical causes can underpin your thoughts of “I want to cry, but can’t.” This can be concerning, but there are easy, affordable ways to keep your eyes lubricated, such as taking simple eye drops to augment your body’s natural tears.

5. Dry eye syndrome

Also known as keratoconjunctivitis, dry eye is one of the key physical reasons for difficulties in producing tears.

This condition occurs when the tear-producing mechanisms in the eye don’t produce enough fluid to lubricate the eye, or the tears are not of a high enough quality to achieve effective lubrication.

A person may develop dry eye for many reasons, including:

Because tears are vital for keeping your eyes clean and comfortable, dry eye can present other health problems alongside an inability to cry. For instance, people who can’t cry risk infections and eye damage.

Using artificial tears and lubricants can help you maintain your quality of life for longer.

6. Sjögren’s syndrome

Around 4 million people in the U.S. live with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune condition that can have effects right across the body. One of the most recognizable symptoms, however, is dry eye and a resulting shortage of tears.

As well as dry eye, Sjögren’s can cause:

Sjögren’s is a lifelong condition. If you’re wondering why you can’t cry, you can manage the effects on your eyes by applying prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) eye drops.

To learn more about Sjögren’s syndrome, read our guide: Sjogren’s Syndrome - Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment

7. Dry climates

A 2011 study found that spending a lot of time in a dry, windy climate might contribute to the development of dry eye and its symptoms. As a result, you might find it harder to cry if you live in this kind of climate.

If there’s less moisture in the air, your eyes are likely to feel dry, itchy, and uncomfortable more often without artificial tears or eye drops. You might find that the same happens to your skin or mouth.

8. Cigarette smoke exposure

A study from 2020 found that regular exposure to cigarette smoke increased dry eye symptoms in mice.

While further research would be necessary to confirm whether the same applied in human eyes, the findings suggest a possible link. It’s also hard to say whether cigarette smoke affected the specific symptom of a reduced ability to cry — (mice aren’t known for their emotional openness).

But the researchers did suggest that prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke may be toxic to the surface of the eye and cause inflammation. So, spending less time around cigarette smoke might improve your ability to cry.

9. Taking certain medications

The adverse effects of certain medicines might make you produce fewer tears, even if you want to cry. These medications include:

If you want to cry but you can’t, the side effects of one of those drugs may be disrupting your quality of life. Ask your physician about alternative medications or treatments.

10. LASIK surgery

LASIK surgery is highly effective for correcting nearsightedness and farsightedness. But given its tendency to cause dry eye symptoms for a few months following the procedure, LASIK might also trigger a temporary inability to cry while you recover.

Even though these symptoms will self-correct over time, using artificial tears and eye drops can make your recovery more comfortable.

Is crying good for you? The benefits of tears

Crying provides a host of powerful benefits for your mind and body. That’s why asking, “Why can’t I cry?” goes beyond curiosity, and reflects on your overall well being.

The emotional benefits of crying

Crying relieves stress (possibly).

Between the circulation of mood-boosting chemicals and self-soothing links to the nervous system, crying has several links to stress relief.

But one hypothesis suggests that when tears leave your body, they take stress-boosting hormones and chemicals with them. This may leave fewer stress-linked hormones to circulate in your body, reducing how stressed you feel.

More research is needed, but the idea of tears actually shedding stress hormones is promising.

Crying helps you soothe yourself.

Another reason crying is good for you is that having a good cry might feel cathartic and serve as a route back from intense or traumatic emotions and stressful situations.

But research from 2014 also supports the theory of crying as a buffer against traumatic events. The research suggests that crying switches on the parasympathetic nervous system — a part of your body that helps you relax.

Crying signals to others that you need help.

Humans are social creatures. According to a 2016 study, crying is an attachment behavior that tells others we’re in distress and need help.

Despite some misguided social stigmas around crying, it’s a highly social behavior that lets us instinctively rally our support group to our aid in times of need. If you’ve been frustrated and wondering why you can’t cry, you may also feel lonely or disconnected from others.

Crying releases feel-good chemicals around the body.

Crying circulates hormones like oxytocin through the body. The feeling of warmth and comfort you get from a hug? That’s oxytocin picking up your mood. This special feel-good hormone may also provide pain relief.

When you’re feeling emotionally challenged (or you’re in pain) the boost of oxytocin and other endorphins you get during crying might be just what you need to start feeling better.

Crying might help you sleep better.

The act of crying may help infants get better sleep.

However, the jury is still out on whether crying has a similar effect on adults. Even so, the soothing and pain relief effects of crying may contribute to better sleep.

The physical benefits of crying

Crying keeps the surface of the eye lubricated.

Dry eye and its effects decrease the amount of lubrication on the surface of the eye. Crying has the opposite effect, lubricating the eye and reducing the sensations of itching, grittiness, and discomfort. When you can’t cry, you’ll also feel physical discomfort.

Crying reduces the risk of infection in your eye.

Tears contain a powerful antibacterial fluid called lysozyme. This substance has been found to work so well against bacteria that it may even have significant effects against poisons like anthrax. But keeping your eyes free of infection is a hugely important task that doesn’t just keep you disease-free. It also helps you preserve your vision and go about your day in comfort.

Crying improves your vision

Every time you blink, your tear ducts release a special type of tear called basal tears. These help your eyes retain moisture. They also keep the mucous membranes in your eye from becoming too dry.

When you think back to your last good cry, it might conjure up memories of swimmy, blurry vision through the tears. However, the longer-term effect is the opposite, according to the National Eye Institute. Dry mucous membranes may even lead to vision problems.

Treatment: What to do if you can’t cry

If a medical condition is stopping you from crying, you can take steps to manage or treat that condition. Beyond asking, “Why can’t I cry,” look into treatments like artificial tears and helpful medications.

Treating dry eye

People with dry eye can take simple eye drops to return moisture to the area. Taking tear-replacement drops can reduce the risk of infection and damage to the eye’s surface.

Dry eye might not be reversible for some sufferers. However, your optometrist can prescribe specialized drops that not only add lubrication, but also Increase how many tears your eyes produce on their own.

Your optometrist may need to prescribe further treatment that conserves tears and stops them from evaporating or draining from the eye’s surface.

In more severe cases of dry eye, a healthcare professional can use very small silicone plugs to close the ducts. Another option is to permanently close deficient ducts with surgery. This can help you retain more tears in your eye and reduce the discomfort of dry eye.

Treating Sjögren’s

The effects of Sjögren’s syndrome can involve the whole body. Therefore, treatments can take various forms and will depend on your individual symptoms. It’s important that you work closely with your doctor to tailor a suitable healthcare plan.

Over-the-counter and prescribed eye drops can counteract the symptoms of dry eye, and may lessen the effects of reduced tear production.

If you live with Sjögren’s, you may need to take anti-inflammatory medications to counter the inflammation it causes. These may include short-term prescriptions of corticosteroids like prednisone to counter severe flare-ups, including dry eye. This class of drugs can have severe side effects, so doctors will often taper off doses if a longer course of medication is required.

Your doctor may also prescribe disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDS) such as hydroxychloroquine to reduce how your immune system responds across your body.

How to cry again: Emotional exercises to stimulate tears

Eye drops and artificial tears can mimic the physical act of crying. But an underlying emotional issue can cause an inability to cry. If emotions are making you wonder why you can’t cry there’s no replacement for the real thing.

Here are a few tips on reconnecting with and releasing your emotions.

If you have an underlying mental health condition like depression, a mental health professional may recommend further treatment such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or antidepressant medication.

Struggling to cry - key takeaways

Crying is a natural and healthy part of the human emotional spectrum that provides psychological and physical benefits.

If you find crying difficult or impossible, exploring the reasons why can help you protect your mind, sleep pattern, and eye health.

Why not take the Visionology Eye Quiz to see if dry eye might be the underlying cause of your difficulties in tearing up? A solution might be a few clicks away.

For more medical content directly related to eye ailments, read on:

Does Diabetes Cause Dry Eyes?

Does Menopause Cause Dry Eyes?

Is Your Eye Pain a Symptom of COVID-19 or From Wearing a Mask?

Common Causes of Dry Skin Around the Eyes

Medical sources