Crying in Your Sleep: Why Does It Happen and When to Worry
5th Jun 2021
Have you ever woken up only to find tears streaming down your face? It’s a bit of a shock, especially if it’s never happened to you before.
Crying in your sleep can be confusing and distressing. Does it mean there’s something wrong? What causes it? Should you worry about it?
We’ll be answering these questions and more in today’s article.
How Can I Cry If I’m Asleep?
When you’re asleep, your brain doesn’t shut down. In fact, it’s extremely busy while you sleep, and so is the body.
From stage 1 to 4, we go from being awake to being in a deep sleep. Our brain waves transition from waking state waves to slow waves.
During REM sleep (stage 4 or 5, depending on who you speak to), our brain waves wake up again. But our bodies remain asleep.
In the brain, certain parts light up and get busy.
The hippocampus works on consolidating memory while we sleep. But two other, more unusual areas become active: the amygdala and the cingulate gyrus.
The amygdala is the section of the brain that links the senses with our emotions. The cingulate gyrus controls muscle movement in response to external stimuli.
Even though we’re fast asleep, our emotions, senses, and certain muscle movements are still active.
Depending on the circumstances, this combination can lead to acting out real-world actions. You can talk, walk, laugh, or even cry in your sleep.
Who Does It Happen To?
Crying in your sleep can happen to anyone.
In children, it’s likely to be as a result of nightmares or night terrors.
Adults can experience it after a traumatic event. In the elderly, depression can lead to bouts of sleep crying.
So it can happen to anyone, from young kids to older people.
What Causes Crying In Your Sleep?
Crying in your sleep can happen for a number of reasons. Usually, they aren’t too worrying.
Later on, we’ll discuss when you should worry. But the following are common reasons that aren’t very serious and can be easily dealt with.
Night terrors mostly affect kids between 3 and 12. But they can happen to adults as a result of trauma.
They’re not just a nightmare. Nightmares happen during REM sleep. Night terrors happen during non-REM sleep. They also run in families.
During a night terror, there may be screaming, flailing, or even paralysis. Crying can happen too. In most cases, there’s no recollection of the episode when the person wakes up.
They’re not dangerous, even though it can be scary to see someone else having one.
Have you ever dreamt about a deceased loved one? Or perhaps someone you love dies, is injured, or hurts you in your dream.
Dreams that bring up strong emotion can result in real-life tears. In some cases, you may remember your dream. This will give you an indication of why you wake up crying.
In other cases, you forget your dreams upon waking. You may be shocked and scared to find yourself crying when you wake up. But it’s nothing more than a reaction to a sad or scary dream.
We all have strong emotions about things in life. If you don’t deal with these emotions in a healthy way, you may find that they come out while you’re sleeping.
When you sleep, your brain is busy working through the events of the waking world. It’s unfiltered at this point, so emotions you’ve been suppressing may sneak out.
This can lead to crying in your sleep.
Are you unusually stressed during the day? Perhaps your workload is too much. Maybe there’s conflict in the family.
Whatever is stressing you out could be the reason you’re crying in your sleep. You may be keeping it inside when you’re awake. But you can’t always hide it when you’re asleep.
Some medications can cause strange reactions. If you’ve recently started taking a new medication, it could be the reason.
Changes to meds could also be the culprit. Not all meds have the same effects, even if they’re for the same thing.
When Should I Worry?
In some cases, crying in your sleep may be cause for concern. If you can rule out all of the reasons above, there may be an underlying reason.
You should definitely see a doctor if:
It Happens Frequently
Crying in your sleep can happen to anyone. If it happens to you now and then, it’s perfectly normal. But if you’re waking up in tears often, there may be something else behind it.
Often is a relative term, though. Many of us have never experienced crying in our sleep. So it's hard to tell what counts as “often”.
If it happens twice within a month, it may be a good idea to get a checkup just to be safe.
You’ve Recently Had a Traumatic Experience
Emotional and mental trauma can manifest in some weird ways. One of those ways is crying in your sleep.
Did your sleep crying only begin after you experienced a trauma? It could be psychological, emotional, or even physical.
This may be a sign that you need to deal with underlying emotions about the trauma you experienced.
In this case, a psychologist may be a better option than a medical doctor. But it may be a good idea to get a medical checkup too.
You’ve Recently Suffered a Head Injury
A head injury can alter the way the brain works. A knock to the head can change your brain waves, even if just for a short time.
This could cause strange occurrences, like crying in your sleep. If this happens to you after a head injury, you should see your doctor. Even if the bump was mild.
You Have Other Symptoms
If sleep crying comes with other unusual symptoms, a medical checkup is necessary.
Some symptoms you may experience include:
- Night terrors
- Sleep apnea
- Extreme fatigue
- Unusual irritability
- Aches and pains
Anything else that’s not normal for you should raise a red flag.
You’ve Recently Changed Meds
Medication can lead to all kinds of strange side effects! Crying in your sleep could be one of them. If you’ve recently started or changed to a new medication, your sleep crying could be a result.
If this sounds like the reason, you’ll need to chat to your doctor about it.
It Disrupts Your Sleep
If your sleep crying is:
- Waking you up often
- Preventing you from sleeping
- Causing you extreme worry
- Making you afraid to sleep
Then it may be time to get some help. A doctor’s appointment is a good start. You can find out if there are any underlying problems, which could put your mind at ease.
But your doctor can also offer advice on how to get better sleep. Improving your sleep could actually stop the sleep crying.
Crying in your sleep can be alarming, but it’s often nothing to worry about. Be thoughtful about it, though. If something has happened to bring it on, it’s best to get it checked out.
But the occasional bout of crying in your sleep isn’t a problem. Don’t let it worry you if it happens. If you are concerned, there are some easy ways to deal with it.
Assess your emotional state and try to deal with any suppressed emotions you may have. Make sure your sleep hygiene is on point. Try to minimize your stress. And see a doc if there are any other concerns.