There are times when it’s fine to cry your little heart right out – say, when you and your best cat friend are catching up on Parenthood at home on the couch. And then there are times when it’s in your best interest to hold back the tears, mostly because of the way they’ll make others perceive you. Crying angry tears during an argument could end up undermining the points you’re trying to make, to name one frustrating example.
So are there any surefire ways to keep tears from falling at inopportune moments? Everyone has their own method: Mine is to tilt my head up slightly so the tears can’t escape, a strategy that has at best a middling success rate. Another often-suggested technique is to distract yourself with pain, like by pinching the bridge of your nose or, as Joanna Goddard suggested in a post earlier this week, “Pinch[ing] the webbed piece of skin between your thumb and pointer finger. Hard. It will immediately stop you from crying every time.”
No one has specifically studied how to keep yourself from crying emotional tears, but, as author and neuroscientist Robert Provine points out, it makes sense that it’s not easy to do; it’s just as hard to start crying on cue. (Unless, speaking again of Parenthood, you happen to be Mae Whitman.) “Emotional tearing is under very weak conscious control — most people can’t do it voluntarily,” Provine said. Crying, like blushing, is an emotion-related physiological response, for which our bodies don’t really have reliable on or off switches. (“Can you imagine instantly starting or stopping salivation?” he asked.)
Still, the pinching suggestion is likely to help, said Ad Vingerhoets, a scientist at Tilburg University who studies emotional tears. The sensation of physical pain will probably be enough to distract you from your emotional pain long enough to stop you from crying, but there’s also a less painful general rule to follow here. “I can imagine that, more generally, increasing muscle tension and moving may limit your crying response, because it seems that crying is in particular a passive and helpless reaction,” he said in an email.
In an earlier conversation, Vingerhoets told me that helplessness is the “core of crying” — it’s the emotion most likely to bring on a crying binge. The opposite of feeling helpless, of course, is feeling in control, and research has suggested that one way to increase self-control is tensing up your muscles, so the advice seems like it could work.
Incidentally, this is a question Vingerhoets seems to get somewhat often when people find out that he studies emotional tears. “Just yesterday [someone] asked me if it is possible to discontinue crying when you increase the tension of the muscles of your buttocks,” he said. (Sounds like it is, probably!)