Why Do I Cry When I Get Angry?

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Updated on May 26, 2021

Crying is a universal (and perfectly normal) reaction that we experience when dealing with strong emotions. Whether you’re crying because you feel mistreated, abandoned, or humiliated (and that makes you angry), or shedding tears of joy seeing your newborn baby for the first time, this reaction can hold different meanings depending on the circumstances.

woman crying

In the case of angry tears, crying may signal a state of emotional turmoil that results from a profound sense of injustice. For instance, you might cry when you discover that your partner has been texting someone else behind your back for a while and the fact that s/he betrayed your trust makes you angry.

Long story short, angry tears are a clear sign that something profoundly unpleasant has disturbed your inner balance, and you need to make some changes to regain your composure. 

Why Do Human Beings Cry?

As mentioned above, crying is one of the most natural human responses that we can exhibit due to experiencing strong emotional reactions. It is a gesture that transcends cultural barriers and can be easily recognized as a sign of distress by almost every individual on this planet.

From an evolutionary perspective, crying is a distress signal which lets your “tribe” know that you’re going through a rough patch and might need comfort or support. Furthermore, as researchers point out, “crying elicits parental responses in different mammals,” making it a functional behavior in the repertoire of infants.[1]

If babies and toddlers didn’t cry when they felt hungry, thirsty, or sleepy, mothers wouldn’t know how to care for their children’s needs. Crying can also have a self-soothing effect as it allows you to vent painful emotions. However, experts believe that crying can have a soothing effect only when it elicits comfort and support from other people, or what is commonly referred to as social soothing.[2]

But what exactly happens in our brain when we cry?

The Anatomy and Neurochemistry of Crying

When we think of crying, the first image that might come to mind is tears running down one’s cheeks. But behind this apparently simple reaction is an entire process that involves several anatomical structures. Crying is a complex psychophysiological reaction that results from the activation of different brain areas along with the release of hormones and neurotransmitters.

Some of the primary brain areas involved in crying are the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, and hypothalamus. The hormones and neurotransmitters involved in crying can vary depending on the reasons behind your tears.

For instance, if you’re crying because someone has mistreated you (anger) or because you’re mourning the passing of a loved one (sadness), the brain releases opioids and oxytocin, which exert a soothing effect on the nervous system. But the chief neurotransmitters that trigger the production of tears are acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and neuropeptide Y. From a purely anatomical perspective, researchers focus on three fundamental structures: the vocal system, the facial musculature, and the lacrimal gland.[3]

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In a nutshell, this entire process involves several parts of the nervous system which, through different hormones and neurotransmitters, trigger the activation of the vocal system, lacrimal glands, and facial musculature, resulting in what we all know and recognize as crying. 

Is It Ok to Cry When Angry?

As most mental health experts would agree, crying is a normal reaction that helps you vent painful emotions and achieve a calm state. But whether this reaction is appropriate or not depends on the context. For example, it’s perfectly ok to feel angry for something a coworker has said or done to you. However, bursting into tears during a meeting and storming out of the room might be considered extreme.

In other words, the context in which you exhibit this reaction, along with the frequency and intensity of your angry tears, indicates whether this reaction is within reasonable limits or a sign of poor anger management. But the best way to figure it out is by consulting a licensed mental health professional.

How to Deal With Tears of Anger

While crying may be a natural response, in day-to-day life it certainly has a time and place. If you find that your anger is bringing you to tears at inconvenient or inappropriate times, there are things you can do to better regulate your emotions.

Try Mindfulness Meditation

In a nutshell, mindfulness is a practice by which you consciously choose to live in the present, observe your thoughts and emotions, and be in touch with your body. Current evidence suggests that even a single mindfulness meditation session can reduce anger reactivity in both meditators and non-meditators.[4]

Mindfulness can include almost any regular activity that induces a state of relaxation and puts you in touch with different mental and physical sensations, thus allowing you to witness your thoughts instead of analyzing them.

For instance, by focusing on how anger is felt in the body, you learn to simply observe this emotion without letting yourself be carried away by it. You can focus on your breath, heartbeat, the tension in your muscles, and other physical responses that accompany this emotion. By doing so, you are less likely to cry, shout, curse, or exhibit other reactions that might not be appropriate in specific contexts. 

Go for a Walk

There are times when even something as simple as taking a walk to cool your head is enough to help you keep anger (and crying) under control. In a way, we could argue that walking is a form of mindfulness meditation. It facilitates present-moment awareness by putting you in contact with different stimuli from the environment.

Furthermore, taking a short walk after a heated argument physically removes you from the environment causing you stress and helps you process anger in a different setting, away from the person who’s triggered it.

Remember, it’s ok to cry when angry, as long as you do it in the presence of people you trust and are mindful of the context.


References

  1. Newman J. D. (2007). Neural circuits underlying crying and cry responding in mammalsBehavioural brain research182(2), 155–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2007.02.011
  2. Gračanin, A., Bylsma, L. M., & Vingerhoets, A. J. (2014). Is crying a self-soothing behavior?Frontiers in psychology5, 502. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00502
  3. Bylsma, L. M., Gračanin, A., & Vingerhoets, A. (2019). The neurobiology of human cryingClinical autonomic research: official journal of the Clinical Autonomic Research Society29(1), 63–73. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10286-018-0526-y
  4. Fennell, A. B., Benau, E. M., & Atchley, R. A. (2016). A single session of meditation reduces of physiological indices of anger in both experienced and novice meditatorsConsciousness and cognition40, 54–66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2015.12.010

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Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events