Waking up sad and crying can be concerning, especially if you’re unsure why it happens. It would be one thing if you had a particularly sad dream as that’s easy enough to interpret and understand. What if there’s no clear reason to cry? What about if you woke up feeling normal but started crying for no reason?
Crying after waking up could be due to diurnal mood variation, which is where depression causes you to feel very unhappy in the morning but better as the day progresses. Heightened emotions could be due to parasomnia, which is a group of disorders related to unusual behavior during or immediately after sleep.
The problem isn’t that you cry in the morning. Instead, it’s likely due to depression, anxiety, or a similar medical condition, which we’ll now explore in further detail.
Why Am I Waking up Sad and Crying?
You may be waking up sad and crying due to depression. Depression (major depressive disorder) is often misunderstood as it isn’t something you can shake off by thinking positive thoughts.
It’s a mental health condition caused by a mixture of hormones, environmental stimuli, diet, and brain structure. It’s a condition that you may need help to overcome.
What is Depression?
Depression causes you to feel consistently sad for days, weeks, months, and even years.
It’s associated with feelings of unhappiness, hopelessness, and low self-esteem. You may find tasks draining, even simple tasks, which can lead to you doing very little in a day.
Depression affects us all in unique ways. You may not be experiencing all of the feelings above. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have depression.
Diurnal Mood Variation (Morning Depression)
Diurnal mood variation is one of the core symptoms of depression. It refers to your mood regularly changing over the course of a day, meaning that you feel particularly depressed each morning.
According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, mood is related to the circadian rhythm. This is the body’s natural hormonal rhythm: over the course of the day, the body produces a variety of hormones with different effects.
In the morning, your body will use hormones to wake up. At night, it uses hormones to make you feel tired. This is mostly related to the hormones cortisol and melatonin.
Over the day, your body produces hormones that make you feel hunger or sexual desire. However, in most people with depression, the body doesn’t regulate sleep properly.
This same kind of circadian rhythm—also called the ‘sleep homeostat—seems to regulate mood. So, this may be why you wake up crying each morning.
What Are the Causes of Depression?
Depression has a multitude of causes that stem from nature and nurture.
It seems that some people’s genetic makeup predisposes them to depression. By avoiding stressors like abuse and stress, it’s possible to avoid depression by removing its triggers.
According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, the ‘cornerstone’ of depression is an impairment of ‘central monoaminergic function.’
Monoamines are neurotransmitters: hormones that the brain uses to communicate with itself and the nervous system. The ‘monoamine theory’ proposes that a deficiency in norepinephrine or serotonin may cause depression.
This lack of effective neurotransmitters seems to have a genetic origin, which is backed up by familial studies. Heritability (the likelihood that a child will inherit something from their parent) is as high as 80%. Twin studies also suggest a genetic origin. So, if one twin has depression, it’s likely that the other will too.
However, there are other theories as to why people become depressed. According to the study above, the impact of life events is vital in the onset of depression. These life events could be anything stressful, such as death, difficulties at work, problems with a partner, and so on.
What Are the Other Symptoms of Depression?
Depression has many symptoms other than an unhappy mood. You may not have previously identified these as symptoms of a condition because they can be difficult to distinguish from day-to-day experiences.
Here are some of the other symptoms of depression:
- Suicidal ideation, the medical term for thinking of and fantasizing about suicide
- Feeling like you have no energy to do even basic tasks
- A feeling of anxiety, including restlessness, agitation, and worrying
- Changes in appetite, including eating more or less than you usually would
- Aches and pains that don’t seem to be related to physical injury
- Feeling excessively guilty
- Moving, including speaking slower than you usually would
- Low sex drive
You may notice social symptoms, such as doing worse at work or school or avoiding contact with others. You may neglect your hobbies and interests and have a difficult home life.
With mild depression, you may not notice many of these symptoms. However, with severe depression, you may notice all of them, although that’s unlikely. In the severest cases, you may notice visual and auditory variations.
So, depression—or diurnal mood variation—can cause you to cry when you wake up.
What Else Could Cause Crying in the Morning for No Reason?
Other possible reasons for waking up crying aren’t as serious as depression.
So, let’s look at what else might be responsible:
Woke Up Crying from My Dream
The most obvious reason you might cry when you wake up is dreams.
If you have sad dreams throughout the night, it’s little wonder that you wake up crying. Waking up crying from a dream or nightmare is nothing to worry about as it’s just your body’s natural reaction.
If you don’t have sad dreams, you may be tempted to dismiss the idea out of hand. However, before you do, consider that most dreams that people have are almost immediately forgotten.
According to a study in Nature and Science of Sleep, some people remember dreams far better than others, which is related to visual processing skills.
So, you may be dreaming but not remembering what you dreamt. However, if this is a regular occurrence, it’s more likely to be something like depression.
It’s unlikely that somebody has nightmares or unhappy dreams every single night.
Night terrors are unpleasant experiences, but you won’t remember them when you wake up. That’s because they occur during non-REM sleep—when you aren’t dreaming.
Therefore, you may not know that you’ve had one, especially if it’s during the night. If you go back to sleep, you probably won’t remember it in the morning.
They occur just as you progress between different stages of sleep. When you have a night terror, you’re partially awake but partially asleep at the same time.
You can’t see or hear anything around you, despite your eyes being open. They can last anywhere from a few seconds up to fifteen minutes.
The stress of a night terror can lead to whimpering, yelping, or screaming while you sleep. You may also thrash around as if you’re trying to get away from something.
This behavior can be stressful for anybody with you, such as a partner. Other symptoms include increased heart rate, faster breathing, and sweating.
People who have night terrors usually wake up very suddenly. So, you may wake up feeling afraid and start to cry.
Stress and Anxiety
Stress is difficult to diagnose if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Almost everybody experiences stress every day at work or home. However, you may not appreciate that the problem has gotten out of hand. You may think, “that’s just the way life is,” but life doesn’t always have to be stressful.
Anxiety is a similar condition to stress, in that you spend your time thinking about the problems facing you. Stress makes you feel angry and frustrated, and by contrast, anxiety makes you feel nervous and worried.
You may not appreciate that stress and anxiety aren’t just states of mind. Chronic stress and anxiety are genuine mental conditions that you can find treatment for.
They deserve to be taken seriously as they can have damaging effects. The most obvious of these, in this context, is that they can make you feel frustrated and cry in the morning.
If the problem is stress and anxiety, you can tell if this is the case relatively easily. When you wake up, do you immediately start to think about the problems you’re facing? Do you feel helpless or angry when you think about the day ahead? If so, stress or anxiety may be why you wake up crying.
REM Sleep Behavior Disorder
Rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD) is characterized by the person acting out their dreams and mirroring both the behaviors and movements from what they’re dreaming.
According to the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, during normal REM sleep, the brain turns off its connection to the body’s muscles, which is why you don’t move around excessively during the night, except in response to stimuli.
However, in people with RBD, this doesn’t happen. The brain is still ‘connected’ to the body’s muscles. People with RBD consequently act out whatever they’re doing in their dreams.
In the study, the authors highlighted a case by way of illustration. In it, the patient fell asleep on a transatlantic flight. While asleep, they started kicking and punching. Unfortunately, the pilot thought they were having a seizure and redirected the plane back to the airport.
RBD involves two main problems: abnormal vocalizations and abnormal motor behavior. Abnormal motor behavior involves kicking out, punching, moving, running, or walking.
That’s because the dreams that cause RBD involve fighting, chasing, or running. Abnormal vocalizations include grunting, speaking, laughing, shouting, and swearing.
A study in Parkinsonism and Related Disorders found that people with RBD may cry during the night, too. RBD is associated with Parkinson’s disease and similar conditions for unclear reasons.
However, RBD isn’t solely a sign of Parkinson’s disease and may be the reason for crying at night.
Confusional arousals are periods of confusion upon waking from a deep sleep.
Examples include sleeping after sleep deprivation or the deep sleep caused by medications. What’s of particular interest is that, before waking, a person exhibits strange behavior.
According to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, confusional arousals cause agitated behavior, including calling out, thrashing, and crying.
Again, confusional arousals are more common in children but aren’t unknown in adults. Each episode can last between 10-15 minutes, although some are up to an hour.
Confusional arousals last longer the more somebody tries to wake you. They can be triggered by various causes like stress, anxiety, or sleep deprivation.
Alternatively, if you’re taking a medication that induces deep sleep, this may be the cause.
Emotional Processing during Sleep
You may have heard that dreams are the brain’s way of processing emotion. This has long been ‘common knowledge,’ but scientific research has increasingly backed the idea.
According to Psychological Bulletin, sleep plays a major role in emotional regulation. Sleep is vital for two distinct processes: preparing the brain to learn and solidifying memory formation.
During the night, the brain consolidates memories, mainly ‘affective’ memories. These memories produced an emotional effect on you, whether positive or negative. So, your brain consolidates emotionally important memories during the night, especially soon after an event.
This may be the reason why emotionally significant events find their way into our dreams. The Journal Learning & Memory found that the amygdala was selectively activated during REM sleep. The amygdala plays a decisive role in the processing of emotional stimuli.
All of this is to say that the brain processes emotional memories during the night. Studies on whether this can cause emotional responses upon waking are lacking, but they may be related in some way to causing emotional dreams and behaviors like crying.
Certain hormones can cause people to cry more easily or more often.
In particular, a hormone imbalance can cause you to feel upset and cry. For example, estrogen and progesterone can cause mood swings, ranging from anger to sadness.
Neurotransmitters can also fluctuate. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. However, over the course of a day or a month, levels in the brain can vary.
As your hormones change, you may find that you begin to cry more at a particular time of the month. This applies to the hormonal fluctuations of both men and women.
The hormonal nature of crying is also well-documented. A piece in Scientific American found that the chemical makeup of tears cried in sadness is different from tears produced for any other reason, like fear or anger.
Tears produced by emotional crying contain prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and Leu-enkephalin. They also contain more potassium and manganese than other tears.
Hormones may make you more susceptible to crying during the morning. If you’ve noticed a pattern to how you cry—for instance, in the middle of each month— it may be hormonal.
Are You Actually Crying?
Have you considered if you’re crying or not? If your tears aren’t accompanied by a feeling of sadness or fear, they may not be ‘tears.’ They might be nothing more than dry eyes.
Contrary to what you may expect, dry eyes produce more tears than usual because the tear glands go into overdrive. Consequently, they attempt to moisten the eyes more than usual.
Dry eyes are caused by many environmental effects, such as wearing contact lenses during the day or sleeping in a particularly dusty bedroom.
How Can I Tell What’s Wrong?
To figure out what’s wrong, keep a dream journal, which is a small diary where you record any dreams that you remember having.
With time, this will enable you to build up a clearer picture of your typical dreams, enabling you to identify recurring factors that contribute to your crying in the morning.
Consider recording yourself while you sleep to identify whether you’re repeatedly waking from nightmares, dreams, or night terrors. Try it for a few nights and see what you find. You may also notice that you talk in your sleep, providing you with some further clues.
A doctor will be able to quiz you on other symptoms of conditions or may perform a blood test to identify hormonal changes. Alternatively, they may invite you in for sleep tests, which involve sleeping overnight at the hospital, where doctors monitor your heart rate and brain activity.