SUDDENLY BURSTING into tears can be “inappropriate”: from puzzling (crying at movie previews) to embarrassing and even job-threatening (tears when your boss criticizes your writing—or, worse, you),
You can stop unwanted tears by pressing your tongue against the soft palate (located behind the teeth at the roof of the mouth), either alone or as part of swallowing, according to Paul Wilson in his book “Instant Calm.” Swallowing naturally pushes the tongue against the soft palate.
As part of the autonomic response of crying, throat muscles open the glottis, which controls the opening between the back of the throat (pharynx) and the voice box (larynx). (The autonomic nervous system operates bodily functions, like digesting food and sometimes crying, that you don’t control.)
To prevent food from getting into the larynx while swallowing, the glottis closes—even while it strains to open to allow crying. According to a Quora article, trying to swallow and cry at the same time creates muscle tension in the back of the throat—what feels like a lump, called the globus sensation—and makes it difficult to do either.
Clearing the throat prior to swallowing starts the interruption of the crying mechanism by briefly closing the glottal opening.
Emotions such as sorrow, fear and anger cause several autonomic nervous system responses to stress, all aiming to increase flow of oxygen to the muscles. The heart beats harder and faster to increase blood to the muscles; the lungs breath faster to increase absorption of oxygen into the blood; and the throat and mouth open to increase air intake into the lungs.
The results—panting and heart pounding, and sometimes nausea—are stress reactions that often accompany crying. Also, sadness increases the brain’s secretion of the hormone cortisol to provoke the stress reaction, and cortisol in turn makes the mouth drier and prompts the swallowing reflex to moisten it.
Alternatives for stanching tears include distraction, such as pinching your skin between the thumb and index finger or biting your tongue hard; capturing tears before they fall by tilting your head up slightly to collect tears in the bottom of the eyelids or blinking rapidly to clear tears away; and slowing the breath, which can reduce feelings of stress and control crying.
Psychotherapists suggest that different parts of our bodies hold sadness—flippantly referred to as “issues in the tissues.” The throat, for example, can be a repository of shame about unacceptable tears or of the helplessness and fear of childhood. Dealing with these issues with emotional and physical therapies can reduce inappropriate crying.
One commenter on the Quora article, for example, found respite by practicing believing that crying is important and helpful, rather than shameful, and that others’ negative judgements should be seen instead as reflecting their own issues.
For some people, the trickier challenge may be, not stopping tears at inappropriate moments, but figuring out how to cry when it’s useful—when a family member you disliked dies, or when you are finally breaking up with someone, and you’re already over it but they are hurt and shocked. You need to cry.
Besides the predictable suggestion to think of something sad—death of a pet, someone you miss—what can work is rubbing a menthol product (a vapor rub or “tear stick”) underneath your eyes. The chemicals will slightly irritate the eyes, causing tears to form and making them look red and puffy. Be careful not to get menthol in your eyes.
What’s safer is plain petroleum jelly applied under the eyes and high on the cheeks, making it look as if you have been crying on and off. Other solutions for producing tears involve drying the eyes: for example, holding the eyes wide open by pretending you’re in a staring contest with someone. Hair dryers directed at the eyes can help, as can “tear blowers” that contain menthol, although using drying machines may make fake tears less convincing.
In addition to knowing how to stop inappropriate tears and fake them when necessary, don’t forget about “good” tears—when happy feelings provoke tears of joy.
Every Tuesday in this space, well-being editor Mary Carpenter reports on health news we can use.