When you see lists of symptoms of bipolar disorder, “uncontrollable crying” is commonly among them. Yet, there is not a whole lot of information on why that is. I cry a lot. It’s not usually sobbing. Most of the time it’s just a few tears and only lasts for a minute. No big deal, but I also cry when I’m angry. This frustrates me to no end. Not only am I angry but I feel I’ve then lost control of the situation, which just makes things worse. So, I thought I would do some research (surprising, I know) and see if my particular types of crying spells might be related to my bipolar disorder.
First let’s go through some basics. We need to know what crying is before we can move on to trying to treat it (if it needs treating). Tears are made up of proteins, water, oil and mucus, and they’re hanging out in your eyes all the time. Mostly they’re just keeping your eyes lubricated so they can function properly. Crying comes in when you have tears in excess. Then they flow out of your eyes like a sinking ship. There are actually a few different types of tears each with their own chemical makeup: basal tears, which are the ones that keep your eyes lubricated; reflex tears, which protect your eyes from irritants (think cutting onions); and emotional tears, which are reactions to, well, emotions. These are the ones we’re focusing on right now.
To over-simplify it, emotional crying is like sweating for your eyes. Stress chemicals build up in your body and crying can actually help your body get rid of them. So it seems natural that with bipolar disorder, our sensitivity to stress alone could cause more frequent sob-fests.
More than likely, however, it goes back to brain structure. Multiple studies have show that the brain structure in bipolar patients is different than in our healthy counterparts. Part of the difference is in our frontal-limbic region, which is the part of the brain that helps control emotion. More specifically, the amygdala is responsible for reacting to stimuli. It takes everything in and produces a response. In bipolar disorder, the amygdala has increased activity. Basically, the part of our brains responsible for emotion tends to over-react. You see something sad, you find it sadder than someone without bipolar disorder.
Usually the amygdala is kept in check by the frontal cortex part of the brain. The amygdala produces a response, sends it up to the frontal lobe and says “This is how I feel, okay?” and the frontal lobe either says “Yes,” or “You need to take it down a notch.” Well, in bipolar disorder the connection between the two doesn’t work how it’s supposed to. The emotions are not regulated as well so the response is not necessarily in line with what it would be in an otherwise healthy brain. Basically, we over-react. It happens more consistently in mania than in depression, but it happens all the same. The reaction can also get caught in a loop like the howling of microphone feedback. Sounds great, right?
So, if you’re already a cryer, you’re going to be more of a cryer. I come from a family of cryers so I’m pretty sure my genes have to take some of the responsibility. The added stress-release action of tears also explains my angry cry.
When I angry-cry, I try to control it. Breathing and taking a step back or a timeout help with that. When I’m sad or whatever-crying, I tend to just let it go. After all, it’s healthier than keeping it all in. Most of the time.