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Why does it hurt to hold back tears?

Many people have experienced the physical discomfort that comes from trying not to cry. Your eyes may burn, your throat may feel tight, and you may get a headache from the effort of holding back tears. But why does holding back tears cause pain? There are several reasons why suppressing your tears can lead to physical distress.

The Purpose of Tears

To understand why holding back tears hurts, it helps to first understand the biological purpose of tears. Tears serve several important functions:

  • They lubricate the eyes and help protect them from irritants.
  • They wash away foreign particles from the eyes.
  • They contain antibodies and antimicrobials that prevent infection.
  • They help maintain the correct pH balance on the eye’s surface.

In addition to these protective roles, tears also serve an emotional purpose. When we experience strong emotions, extra tears may be produced and overflow down the cheeks. Researchers believe emotional tears help the body remove stress hormones and calm down after distress.

What Happens When You Suppress Tears

Suppressing tears interrupts this natural process. When you actively fight your tears during emotional moments, it causes the following physiological effects:

Increased muscle tension

To prevent tears from spilling over, the muscles around the eye must contract. This includes the orbicularis oculi muscle surrounding the eyelids. Sustained contraction of this muscle can lead to strain, spasms, and discomfort.

Activation of the sympathetic nervous system

Trying not to cry activates the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight response. This triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which increase heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.

Buildup of lachrymal fluid

The lachrymal glands continue producing tears even when you suppress crying. This leads to a buildup of fluid pressure in the lacrimal ducts and glands, causing swelling.

Less stimulation of sensory nerves

When tears spill over the eyelids, they help stimulate sensory nerves in the cornea. Suppressing tears cuts down on this sensory stimulation, which may feel unsettling.

Physical Effects of Suppressed Tears

As a result of these physiological changes, trying not to cry can cause various unpleasant physical sensations, including:

Eye strain and pain

Contracting the orbicularis oculi muscle for a prolonged period can lead to spasms and cramping around the eyes. The additional fluid pressure in the lacrimal glands can also cause swelling and discomfort. These effects create an aching, burning sensation around the eyes.


Suppressed crying triggers the release of stress hormones and elevated blood pressure. Both of these effects can trigger vascular headaches due to constriction of blood vessels in the brain. The associated muscle tension also contributes to headache pain.

Sore throat

Trying not to sob or whimper causes muscle strain in the vocal cords and throat. Much like stifling a sneeze, this muscular effort can leave the throat feeling scratchy, tight, and painful. Excessive swallowing from choked-back tears can worsen the irritation.

Difficulty breathing

The tightness many people feel in their throats when suppressing tears occurs partially because of muscle tension in the larynx. This can restrict airflow slightly, making breathing more difficult. Holding breath to avoid sobbing also exacerbates this effect.


Crying is a natural way for the body to release stress hormones and calm down after emotional agitation. Without this outlet, stress hormone levels remain high, causing mental and physical exhaustion.

Sinus pressure

Some research indicates that suppressing tears may lead to fluid buildup and pressure in the sinus cavities due to decreased drainage. This could result in headache, facial pain, and stuffed sinuses.

Other Possible Effects

In addition to physical discomfort, chronically suppressing tears may also contribute to:

  • Increased levels of stress hormones
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Weakened immune system
  • Higher risk of depression and anxiety disorders
  • Lower relationship satisfaction

Studies show that crying releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, chemicals that calm the body and relieve pain. Suppressed tears deprive you of these benefits.

Relieving the Pain from Suppressed Tears

If you’re experiencing physical discomfort from holding back tears, the only way to fully relieve it is to stop suppressing the urge to cry. However, you can also try these measures to find some relief:

Apply a warm compress over the eyes and sinuses

The warmth may help relax muscular tension and reduce swelling in the lacrimal glands.

Try facial massage

Massaging the temples, cheeks, and area around the eyes can help relax constricted muscles causing pain.

Use lubricating eye drops

Drops moisten the eyes to reduce irritation from inadequate tears.

Take over-the-counter pain relievers

Medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can alleviate headaches, sinus pressure, and general discomfort.

Breathe deeply and slowly

This counteracts muscle tension and the effects of fight-or-flight activation.

However, while these self-care measures may provide temporary relief, allowing emotional tears to flow is the best way to relieve pain from suppressed crying over the long-term.

When to Seek Medical Help

In most cases, the pain caused by holding back tears will resolve once you allow yourself to cry. However, if you experience severe or persistent symptoms, you may need medical treatment. See your doctor if you have:

  • Headaches that worsen or fail to improve with over-the-counter medication
  • Eye pain accompanied by vision changes
  • Extreme throat pain that makes swallowing difficult
  • Shortness of breath or chest tightness

These could indicate a more serious underlying health condition requiring medical attention. Chronic, severe headaches in particular warrant professional evaluation to rule out issues like high blood pressure or concussion.

Seeking Emotional Support

Suppressing tears over the long term takes an emotional toll in addition to physical effects. Speaking with a mental health professional can help you process painful emotions in a healthy way. Therapy provides a judgement-free space to release pent-up feelings.

If you struggle with excessive tear suppression, a psychologist can teach you to express emotions instead of bottling them up. They may recommend anti-anxiety medication if needed to manage distress that prevents normal crying. With professional support, you can learn to cry readily so that tears flow before leading to physical consequences.


Trying not to cry causes pain because it disrupts the body’s natural tear production system and stress response mechanisms. Suppressing tears leads to muscle strain around the eyes, fluid buildup in the lacrimal glands, activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and other effects. The resulting sensations – including eye strain, headaches, throat pain and more – will continue until you allow emotional tears to flow freely. While temporary relief measures can help, fully stopping the pain of suppressed tears requires emotional release through healthy crying. If physical symptoms persist or worsen, consulting a doctor is recommended. With professional treatment, you can learn to express emotions in a way that prevents chronic tear suppression and associated discomfort.