An Overview of Uncontrollable Crying

Woman with uncontrollable crying.

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Have you ever experienced episodes of uncontrollable crying? It may feel like you're crying for no reason, and you can't seem to stop. If so, you might feel worried about why you are crying or feel unable to control it.

While uncontrollable crying can be a symptom of some mental health disorders, it can also be a sign of an underlying neurological issue. As a result, the treatment options and coping strategies that you employ will differ depending on the cause.

Signs of Uncontrollable Crying

Not sure if your uncontrollable crying is normal or a problem? Have a look at this list of signs that something might be wrong or more than just normal tears:

  • You have uncontrollable episodes of crying, laughter, or both
  • Your crying seems to happen without an obvious trigger or in relation to something that doesn't seem like a natural trigger
  • Your crying does not seem to relate to feelings of sadness
  • Your laughter easily turns into crying
  • You avoid being around people for fear of crying or having an outburst
  • Your crying episodes are unpredictable

Causes of Uncontrollable Crying

If you find yourself crying for no apparent reason fairly often, it doesn't make you a bad person. But it could mean you're dealing with an underlying physical or mental health condition. Here are some of the most common explanations behind your uncontrollable crying.

Neurological Causes

If you find yourself uncontrollably crying during a happy event or laughing hysterically during a sad event, you may have a condition called pseudobulbar affect (PBA).

PBA is a neurological disorder, meaning that it is caused by damage to the nervous system. It is characterized by sudden, uncontrollable and inappropriate crying or laughing. PBA usually occurs as a result of a traumatic brain injury or another neurological condition such as:  

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Stroke

Many people with PBA are unaware that they have a real condition and rarely tell a doctor about their symptoms (so they don't receive treatment). Doctors also don't usually screen for PBA because many don't know about it. However, the condition has been documented for over 100 years.

Almost 2 million people in the U.S. know they have PBA. Many cases go undiagnosed, so the actual number may be as high as 7 million.

There are different theories about which brain structures are involved in PBA. One theory is that there is damage to the cerebro-ponto-cerebellar pathways, which adjust laughter or crying to match the situation. Another theory is that there is damage to pathways in motor areas of the cerebral cortex that inhibit laughter and crying.

Mental Health Causes

Frequently crying for no reason may also be a sign of a mental health issue. Crying can be a symptom of various forms of grief. Acute grief resulting from a situation such as the loss of a loved one is one type. In addition, there is chronic grief, usually related to an ongoing situation in your life (e.g., infertility).

In general, crying that is part of grief is only treated if it is considered part of a depressive disorder or is significantly disruptive to one's functioning.

Major depression also involves crying; however, it has other features such as sleep issues, lack of enjoyment of usual activities, and appetite changes. PBA is sometimes also mistaken for depression. One way to distinguish them is based on the trigger; PBA seems to lack a trigger or be triggered in inappropriate ways.

Effects of Uncontrollable Crying

Uncontrollable crying can have negative effects on your life. Below are some of the things you might experience:

  • Social embarrassment over your inability to control your crying
  • Distress in social situations, the workplace, and with family
  • Feeling emotionally exhausted
  • Choosing to isolate yourself due to your crying
  • Changing your life to avoid things that might trigger your crying
  • Secondary depression resulting from chronic, untreated, uncontrollable crying

Treatment for Uncontrollable Crying

The treatments for uncontrollable crying depend on the underlying cause. Complicated grief and depression are usually treated with therapy and/or medication.

PBA may be treated with low doses of tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as citalopram or fluoxetine.

There is also one drug, Nuedexta (dextromethorphan hydrobromide and quinidine sulfate), that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating PBA. It was actually discovered quite accidentally while testing it to treat ALS patients. While it was never approved specifically for ALS, it was later approved for PBA.

This drug contains the active ingredient dextromethorphan, which is found in many cough syrups; however, you can't self-medicate with cough syrup, as it has a different formulation.

An occupational therapist can also help people with PBA learn how to cope in everyday life.

Coping with Uncontrollable Crying

There are also a number of things you can do on your own to cope with uncontrollable crying that is interfering with your life. Below are some ideas:

  • Explain the problem to others so they are not surprised or confused.
  • Speak to other people with the same problem and ask for advice.
  • Distract yourself with something the opposite of crying, like having someone tell you a funny joke.
  • Practice deep breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Getting up and walking around to change your position.
  • Keeping a diary of your episodes to track the triggers, length, related emotions, and ill effects.
  • Examine life stresses and how you can address them.

A Word From Verywell

If you are living with uncontrollable crying that is interfering with your daily life, it's important to seek answers from your doctor. If you live with certain neurologic conditions, PBA may be a concern.

On the other hand, if you have grief that is adversely impacting your life or a depressive disorder, medication or therapy may help. Regardless of the cause, your doctor will be able to prescribe the best course of action.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Work SS, Colamonico JA, Bradley WG, Kaye RE. Pseudobulbar affect: an under-recognized and under-treated neurological disorder. Adv Ther. 2011;28(7):586-601. doi:10.1007/s12325-011-0031-3

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Nuedexta label. Updated June 11, 2019.