Have you ever gotten choked up in the workplace but tried to hold back your tears so as to avoid crying at work in front of your coworkers? Perhaps you just let it out. Either way, you're not alone.
A wealth of research suggests that tons of people cry (a lot), even at work. Whether they slink off to the bathroom to tell themselves to get it together or just break down at their desks, professional adults cry all the time. And, yet, crying at work is still so taboo.
It's taboo because women risk being labeled emotion, weak, unprofessional or even manipulative, which can ruin their careers. Recent research suggests that crying can be okay, so long as women adhere to aforementioned social scripts — the preconceived notions of what their supervisors and colleagues expect from them.
Ultimately, crying at work violates what anthropologists call "display rules," which refer to our cultural norms for self-expression and socialization. When we're caught off guard when a coworker bursts into tears, it makes us almost innately uncomfortable.
But why do we cry so much (and women especially), and how can we work on stopping ourselves from it when we feel like crying at work — or how can we handle it when we just can't fight the tears?
Biochemist William Frey, PhD looked into why women cry so much back in the 1980s. He found that, on average, women cry 5.3 times per month, while men only cry 1.3 times per month. Newer research from Lauren Bylsma, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh (published in the Journal of Research in Personality in 2011) reflects similar results.
Other research from the German Society of Ophthalmology, which had collated different scientific studies on the why women cry, suggests that women cry, on average, between 30 and 64 times a year (and cry for around six minutes each time); meanwhile, men cry just six to 17 times through the year (and cry for only about two to four minutes each time). When women cry, their weeping even turns into full-blown sobbing in 65 percent of cases, compared to just six percent of cases for men.
"Biologically, there may be a reason women cry more than men: Testosterone may inhibit crying, while the hormone prolactin (seen in higher levels in women) may promote it," according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
So it seems, women are just biologically hardwired to cry more often than men. They have six times the amount of prolactin, the hormone related to crying, than men. And they may just feel more comfortable crying because it's expected of them, whereas men often grow up being told to "toughen up" or "be a man" — that "big boys don't cry."
In fact, crying may reflect attachment styles, according to psychotherapist Judith Kay Nelson, PhD, in her book, Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment. Nelson suggests that securely attached people are more comfortable expressing emotions and cry in ways that are considered normal and healthy.
Whatever the case, 41 percent of women have cried at work at some point during their careers. So you're certainly not alone.
While there’s research that suggests that women actually feel worse after crying (while men feel better), other research shows that crying at work doesn’t necessarily hurt your professional standing.
Rather, what can affect your professional standing is how you handle your crying and respond to the situation. If you come off embarrassed and ashamed, others might feel embarrassed for you. But if you can display maturity by acknowledging your emotions after collecting yourself (and without over-explaining yourself or feeling the need to apologize), your colleagues might not think anything of it.
After all, unlike toxic behavior such as lashing out against or bullying others, crying isn't likely to ruin anyone else's day. While it might be a distraction for your colleagues, it'll probably just be a blip on their radar. So long as you thank them for their concern, take the time you need to collect yourself and handle your emotions maturely, most people will understand that crying is natural — and you can't always control when it happens.
Even despite what your colleagues think, for you, crying might be necessary.
"Tears may also serve a therapeutic role, though researchers say the supposedly cathartic role of 'a good cry' has been overstated," according to the APA. "Thirty years ago, biochemist Frey found that emotional tears carried more protein than non-emotional tears (say, from chopping an onion). The implication was that when you cry for emotional reasons, you are involved in a healing process."
While scientists have tried to replicate the experiment and have failed, there's no denying that getting it out feels necessary sometimes. And research has found that about 30 percent of people say their moods improve after crying, according to the APA. Another study, presented in 2014 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, even found that crying could have a self-soothing effect thanks to the activated parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us relax.
That said, if you find yourself crying often at work, it might be a sign of something more serious. When should you seek help for crying so much? If you've started crying more than usual, or things have started bothering you more than usual, it's not a bad idea to talk to a therapist or a doctor. Continuous crying out of feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and just sheer overwhelm might be a sign of depression, and if it persists or your crying episodes are interfering with some aspects of your life (like your work), you should seek professional help.
So you're wondering, "How do I stop crying so much?" If you're at work and are hoping to hold back your tears, there are some steps you can take to relax. Here's how to stop yourself from crying (or at least try!).
Remove yourself from the situation that's causing you to feel like crying — even for just a few minutes. Taking a step back to clear your mind and put the situation into perspective can help you to ease any overwhelming tension.
Often, when we feel like crying, we have trouble communicating our frustration. Take a few minutes to try to communicate with someone on your team, or even yourself, what exactly it is that's frustrating you. Talk it out.
Maybe it feels like the world is ending, but try to look at the bright side. Do your best to keep an optimistic mind so that, even if you feel like crying because you got some negative feedback at your performance review, for example, you know you still have your job and have an opportunity to improve and grow.
Breathing is a natural calming mechanism. Take a few minutes to sit back and just focus on your breath to ground you.
Drinking some water will help you relax the throat muscles, which may tense up and cause the feeling of a ball in your throat. Hydrate and relax.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.