Here's what happens to your body when you turn off the waterworks
The urge to ugly-cry always seems to strike at the worst possible times—at work, 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, on a day off or when you finally have the whole place to yourself), what kind of mark does "sucking it up" leave on your body?
Crying is essentially a release valve that rids your body of excess stress and tension, so when a sobfest 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 NYU Langone 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, which can translate into chest tightness and heavy breathing as you force yourself not to cry. These hormones can also mess with your appetite and blood sugar levels, hence the pre-meltdown butterflies and energy surge.
"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." The occasional tear detour 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 like irritability, anxiety, and poor sleep, and over time high blood pressure, heart problems, and diabetes. Not cool.
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 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.)
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 (one study found 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. (Here are 10 Ways to De-Stress Anywhere.) When your tear ducts don't have your best interest at heart, it's important to make sure the rest of your body does.