Depression is a serious mental illness that affects people in several different ways.
Some people with depression experience crying spells. Crying that is frequent and often unpredictable can help distinguish crying spells from the normal crying that everyone experiences from time to time. Understandably, crying spells can be distressing and affect one’s quality of life.
If you have depression or think you are experiencing symptoms of depression, such as crying spells, it’s important to reach out for help quickly.
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Crying is a response to emotional stress. Everyone cries from time to time, and this is completely normal.
However, some symptoms of depression crying spells can indicate a problem, including the following:
Crying for no obvious reason or trigger
Crying affects daily activities — for example, people may cry at work or need to take time off work.
Crying is uncontrollable and difficult to stop
Crying spells are not listed as a diagnostic feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 (DSM-5). However, they are a recognized symptom and indicator of several other screening tools used to diagnose depression, such as:
The Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), asks how often the patient had crying spells over the past week¹
Beck’s Depression Inventory (BDI), which asks the extent to which the patient cries (whether crying is no more than usual, more than they used to, all the time, or they want to cry but they can’t anymore)²
Anyone who suffers from depression can have crying spells. Some studies found that 43% of people with depression reported ‘crying a lot.’³
Crying spells appear to be more common in certain groups of people than others. For example:
Age: Some studies have suggested that crying spells are a key symptom that helps to diagnose depression in older adults. However, other research found that older adults are less likely to acknowledge experiencing crying spells.⁴ ⁵
The severity of depression: Crying is less common in severe depression compared to mild or moderate depression. It may be more difficult for these people to cry despite having a very low mood and other symptoms of depression.
Gender: Depression crying has been reported to be more common in women than men, perhaps due to the stereotype of men not wanting to show weakness.
Crying spells can be caused by certain neurological disorders, mental health illnesses, and times of hormonal change during the life course (such as during pregnancy).
Pseudobulbar affect is a neurological condition that can occur due to:⁶
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
Multiple sclerosis (MS)
Traumatic brain injuries
Other health issues that damage the nervous system
It’s also important to note that crying spells can occur in these conditions even without having a pseudobulbar affect, such as multiple sclerosis.
Pseudobulbar affect is characterized by frequent, involuntary, and often inappropriate laughter or crying spells that are difficult to control and stop.
Sometimes, pseudobulbar affect is mistaken for depression since the two conditions have similar symptoms, such as crying spells.
Compared to depression, the crying spells experienced in pseudobulbar affect may be more explosive in onset and shorter in duration, and they are not associated with long-term internal sadness. In pseudobulbar affect, the crying spells are often also described as mood-incongruent, meaning the patient may cry when they are very happy.
Some mental health causes of crying spells include:
Depression: This is a serious mental health condition that causes low mood and loss of interest in daily life.
Postpartum blues and postpartum depression: After having a baby, some women develop postpartum blues or postpartum depression. Baby blues typically last up to five days after delivery. Postpartum depression has similar symptoms to postpartum blues but is a more severe, longer-term mental health condition that impairs daily functioning. Both conditions can involve crying spells.
Bipolar disorder: Bipolar disorder involves alternating manic and depressive episodes. During depressive episodes, some people experience uncontrollable crying.
Anxiety and stress: People with anxiety often experience a lack of control over crying, where they cry more intensely and find it difficult to stop.
Grief and loss: Episodes of crying are often a normal symptom of acute grief, usually occurring within the first 6–12 months after experiencing a loss. Some people develop longer-term chronic grief, which can involve crying spells.
For some women, hormonal changes during pregnancy can lead to crying spells.
When pregnant women have crying spells, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have depression — they may cry for no apparent reason or trigger.
However, if other symptoms of depression are also present, it may suggest depression is a contributing factor to the crying spells.
Uncontrollable crying is a behavioral symptom of depression. To the person, they may feel as if they are crying for no reason, but it’s likely that in these instances, depression is the underlying cause. Speaking with a doctor can help the patient understand exactly why their depression is making them cry.
Some other symptoms of depression listed in the DSM-5 include:
Depressed mood or sadness, which may include tearfulness
An inability to experience activities that were once enjoyed
Weight loss or weight gain, and loss or gain of appetite
Feeling guilty or worthless
Fatigue, tiredness, or low energy
Impaired ability to think or concentrate
Being agitated or making slow movements
Thinking about suicide or hurting oneself
The exact symptoms of depression vary from person to person, and not everyone with depression experiences all symptoms.
Depression crying spells can negatively impact daily life.
They can cause problems such as:
Social and cultural challenges, i.e., viewing crying as a weakness and feeling embarrassed
Isolation from people and events
Issues at work, school, or during once-enjoyed activities
Feeling sadder or more depressed after crying
You may experience these effects in addition to more general effects of depression, such as:
Family and relationship conflicts
Alcohol or drug misuse
Self-harm, suicidal feelings, or suicidal attempts
Experiencing anxiety or social phobia
Some evidence has found that crying is self-soothing and can help the person feel better.⁷
However, this may not be the case in people with depression. Because of this, it’s helpful to have some ideas on how to cope with depression-related crying spells.
Remember that crying doesn’t make you weak — it makes you human.
Although crying isn’t a bad thing, there may be times or places when you don’t want to cry. Some tips that you could use to stop yourself from crying include:
Taking slow and deep breaths
Pushing your tongue to the roof of your mouth
Relaxing your facial muscles and trying to get rid of the lump in your throat that is common when you cry
Other depression coping skills that can help you relax and improve your mood include:
Staying physically active, such as walking, jogging, or swimming. Exercise releases endorphins that help to boost mood.
Getting enough sleep. Sleep is important for emotional regulation.
Using relaxation techniques, such as yoga and tai chi
Writing in a journal to express whatever emotions you are feeling. This could give you another outlet instead of crying.
Reducing stress in your daily life by simplifying your day as much as possible
Identifying triggers of your crying spells and other depressive symptoms, so you can learn to avoid and cope with them
Reaching out for support from loved ones or support groups
Consider seeing a doctor if your crying is uncontrollable, more frequent than usual, you feel like you are crying for no obvious reason, or you’re experiencing any other symptoms of a mental health illness. Your doctor can run tests and carry out a mental health assessment to help determine why you are experiencing crying spells.
If you or someone you know has thoughts of self-harm or suicide, take action quickly by calling a mental health helpline, contacting emergency services, or going to the emergency room.
The treatment of depression, and symptoms of depression, such as crying spells, may include:
Medication: Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants, and atypical antidepressants are all effective agents for treating depression. Your doctor can help you decide which medication is best for your needs.
Psychotherapy: Also known as “talk therapy,” some types of psychotherapy that are commonly used to treat depression include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy, and family therapy.
Brain stimulation therapies: Usually used in severe depression where other treatments haven’t worked, brain stimulation therapies such as electroconvulsive therapy can help to treat depression.
Crying is a normal response we all experience at some point in our lives.
However, crying spells can be difficult to deal with and make the person feel out of control, especially when experienced alongside a mental health condition such as depression.
Fortunately, there are healthy coping mechanisms and treatments for managing crying spells and the wider problem of depression. Reaching out for professional support is a good starting point for anyone concerned about their mental health.
Remember, whatever emotions you are feeling, they are valid, and you deserve to get help.
Crying spells can be a symptom of mental health illnesses such as depression, anxiety, stress, grief, and loneliness. Hormonal changes and pregnancy, as well as neurological conditions stemming from pseudobulbar affect, can also involve crying spells.
While not everyone with a mental illness will experience crying, several mental illnesses can involve uncontrollable crying spells.
Crying spells involve frequent and uncontrollable crying. It’s certainly possible to experience crying spells in anxiety. These are potentially triggered by anxiety or panic attacks, chronic stress, and even the side effects of anxiety medication.
There can be numerous reasons that make you suddenly want to cry. Sometimes, you may be unable to determine why you get this feeling. Since there can be many reasons, ranging from neurological to mental health-related, it’s best to see a doctor who can help work out why you suddenly want to cry.
Beck's depression inventory | Ismanet.org
Symptom profiles of subsyndromal depression in disease clusters of diabetes, excess weight, and progressive cerebrovascular conditions: A promising new type of finding from a reliable innovation to estimate exhaustively specified multiple indicators–multiple causes (MIMIC) models (2016)
Is crying good for you? | Harvard Health Publishing