How to stop crying even when your tear ducts aren't cooperating
Stemming the flow for sobbing Sanas
One night in August of 2020, I’d been watching the last episode of the Korean drama Crash Landing On You in the pink-hued confines of my bedroom — or my gufa, as an ex-boyfriend had fondly named it — when I broke into uncontrollable, gut-wrenching sobs as the credits rolled in. No, the protagonists hadn’t been shot dead. They had, in fact, found their own version of a happily ever after, in a place far away from the violence back home. Then why was I was crying — or howling at the moon, as I like to call it?
In all my years on this Earth, I had never been a crier. Until the pandemic rolled into our lives, and had my tear ducts bursting at the seams with all kinds of emotions: tears of joy, of sorrow, of incontinence, of ecstasy… you name it, I had it. From someone who used to make others cry (I’m not proud of it), I hated that I had now turned into a sobbing Sana myself.
Crying should be an Olympic sport, considering how it contorts our bodies. You try to take a lungful of air as your chest grows hotter with the pressure, a tsunami of snot and tears dribbling down your face, past your wobbling chin — that you just can’t get to stop trembling.
The pre-crier Rishika would tear up sometimes if she was feeling upset — like any other person — but what was happening now was completely abnormal. My tears would force their way out at the most inopportune times: in the car, while watching the silent National Anthem (I dare you to get through it without crying), even while I was pooping once — suffice to say, it has been the messiest experience of my life.
Not to mention, even the slightest hint of confrontation has that ominous lump forming in my throat, blurring my surroundings with a veil of fresh tears. Rajesh Khanna’s “Pushpa, I hate tears” comes to mind, because well, I hate tears too — even more so now that my tear ducts have decided to make me the torchbearer of all compulsive criers.
Unsurprisingly, women are more likely than males to cry in public places such as the workplace. In a survey by Time, 41% of women reported weeping at work, compared to 9% of males. This is the result of a variety of biological and physiological causes, as well as socialisation factors. “The expectation in our society is girls should not be expressing anger, but it’s okay for girls to cry,” says Mollie West Duffy, co-author of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work.
However, despite the fact that women are socialised to cry and everyone – male or female – should be tuned into their emotions, there are instances when you would prefer not to bawl your eyes out. It’s tough, as author and neuroscientist Robert Provine points out. “Can you imagine instantly starting or stopping salivation?” he asked.
I took his question as a personal challenge. To my fellow emotional Eshas, these are the techniques I use to steer clear of adding salty tears to my coffee just because I missed the metro again, or because I saw a three-legged dog running around on Instagram.
Expert-approved techniques to control your tears
Yep, you heard that right. The most common way people stop themselves from crying is to self-administer (mild) pain. In situations where I have to discreetly do away with my tears, I prefer to bite my tongue or pinch the skin between my thumb and my forefinger.
By pinching yourself, you are persuading your brain to concentrate on the pain, rather than the sensation of tears coming on. “The crucial element to this is physiology,” says life coach Ben Edwards. “Body movements such as lifting up our heads and bringing the shoulders back are simple ways to reset and start over.”
So shake your head, move your arms, scratch your palm — whatever it takes to keep your brain from sending the wrong signals to your tear ducts. Pinch, if you must, or just fling your arms around in public if you, too, are a masochist like me.
Stare at the ceiling
Tilt your head back and simply look upwards when you’re on the cusp of tears. The tactic, although has a lower success rate than the others on the list, can be effective for minor situations.
The tears will accumulate at the bottom of your eyelid, allowing you a few seconds when they won’t run down your face. As per opthalmologist Johnston M. Kim, you should try to divert your attention away from the tears by focusing on something else during those seconds. I find thinking about my favourite sport, mosquito-zapping, helps (yes, I’m evil like that).
Rolling your eyes up to the ceiling isn’t exactly subtle, but it can keep the torrent of tears from overflowing, at least until you can get to a safe spot to wipe away residue and hide all evidence of the crime.
Count the flowers
When confronted with a scenario that may cause you to cry, concentrating your vision on something distracting could confuse the mind long enough to prevent the tears from flowing.
I was a bit of a troublemaker in college, who saw the inside of the principal’s office more times than I would like to admit. Getting an earful about low attendance? The many flowers on my principal’s sari would come to my rescue. Made a ruckus at the hostel? The tiny, square-like patterns on the wall behind her head were just sitting there, waiting for me to count them.
And every time I was snapped out of my reverie, making me lose count, I would start all over again.
Use a prop
Ad Vingerhoets, a researcher at Tilburg University who studies emotional tears, told The Cut that “increasing muscle tension and moving may limit your crying response.” It’s what modern psychologists call ’embodied cognition’: achieving control of the mind through the body. Though any yoga student will tell you it’s one of the founding principles of the ancient discipline. By actively engaging a muscle group — like clenching your teeth or balling up your fist — you’re using physical signals to actively reign in the mind, which had made the decision to trigger the waterworks.
Squeezing the life out of a stress ball has worked wonders to dissipate my tears.
Although these techniques did somewhat help me, it’s worth trying to figure out why we do cry, after all. According to Vingerhoets, helplessness is the “core of crying” — and is the sneaky emotion behind most of your crying episodes. That’s when the dots started connecting. So, the moment of truth: I am an anally-retentive control freak.
I begrudgingly accept that I am always Together-with-a-capital-T (this is a mental exploration for another article) and if my life even slightly moves away from the plan I have in my head, I unravel. Magnificently.
Because I’ve always been the person who lends other people a shoulder to cry on, I hadn’t developed a healthy outlet to vent my emotional frustration. When the pandemic came in and upended my life, I was left scrambling to hide from the air shells being bombarded like candy.
“We sometimes don’t know how to channel our feelings in a tough situation. So we turn to actions rather than words,” Edwards says. “Crying replaces any need for communication as it’s often easier, and sends a powerful message to the person in the conversation that we’re struggling to continue.”
Experts want you to identify and eliminate the triggers that are causing you stress. “If you’re out of balance, you’re more likely to cry,” says Denise Dudley, a behavioural psychologist. So “check in with all the usual suspects” and see “if there are weird things going on in your life that you can control or eliminate.”
According to Melody Wilding, a coach, speaker, and writer who teaches human behaviour at New York’s Hunter College, allowing yourself time to be upset, rather than continually trying to stifle your emotions, is another coping tool for lesser bouts of crying in the long-term.
Don’t be mistaken, I still, very much, feel at the whim of an emotionally and mentally turbulent year. I don’t know what lies in store for me — none of us do. But, at least, I have found the cure-all to my teary Tara ways: the pulsating rectum method. Be informed that every time you’re screaming at me, I’m thinking of your butthole pulsating, just the way a dog’s body reacts when it barks loudly. So the joke’s on you, buddy.