The only thing worse than crying as an adult is having to deal with another grown-up crying. While babies and children crying is not pleasant, it’s often to communicate a need that can be satisfied, and but when adults cry there’s not always a simple solution. There are plenty of strategies for adults to control their own tears in the moment, but trying to get another person to do that while upset is just asking for trouble. Ironically, the more effective way to get a person to stop crying is to let them finish on their own.
“Give the person some time and space to get past the emotion,” psychotherapist and author Tina Tessina told Fatherly. “If you think they’re really working themselves up, ask some who, what, when, why, where and how questions. That will engage the rational mind, and slow down the emotions.”
Crying in many ways is a healthy response to emotional distress. There’s evidence that tears release oxytocin and other endorphins and help restore emotional equilibrium when people are very happy or very sad. Scientists believe that in adults tears are meant to signal a need for compassion and sympathy from others, similar to how crying signals more obvious and immediate physical needs in infants. And yet only 30 percent of adults report feeling better after crying, perhaps because of the social stigma.
For women, crying is especially consequential in the workplace, potentially for biological reasons as well as social ones. Crying around men lowers their testosterone, and in a workplace environment where power can seem more important, many men may react to this as a threat, research suggests. As a result, crying can hurt a woman’s professional standing, and that might be why so many people attempt to stop shedding tears. Consider that a Google search for “How to stop crying?” yields over 260 million results alone.
Some practical suggestions may suffice for a quick fix on an individual level. Distraction and walking away can help, so can deep breathing, eye movement, and blinking. Relaxing facial muscles, or clenching body muscles can also help to stop tears in the moment. However, suggesting those same actions to someone already in the midst of a good cry can make them feel invalidated and upset them further, ultimately prolonging the crying altogether. Even on an individual level, the best way to stop crying in the long term is by communicating what caused it. By extension, the most effective way to get another person to stop crying is to let them. Sure you can ask questions to jumpstart a person’s rational mind, but it’s important to ask them if they want an outsider’s opinion before giving it. It’s also important to let them know that what they’re feeling is valid.
“Children’s crying is asking grownups to do something. Adults’ crying is seeking understanding,” explains Tessina.
Most adults typically cry for relatively small amounts of time — less than 15 minutes and even move people hover closer to the 5-minute mark, research suggests. When a person can’t stop crying for several hours, it can be a sign of an underlying mental illness like depression and a need for medical attention. But for people who are uneasy, anxious, or even frustrated by crying adults in small doses, the best bet is to leave the cryer alone.
“Crying is mostly healthy. It’s an emotional healing process. So, consider that if you want to get someone to stop crying, it might be your problem, not theirs,“ Tessina says.