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 explore in greater 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 hormones, environmental stimuli, diet, and brain structure. It’s a condition that you may need medical assistance 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 little each day.
Depression affects us all in unique ways. You may not be experiencing all 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 a day, meaning you feel particularly depressed each morning.
According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, our mood is related to the circadian rhythm, which is the body’s natural hormonal rhythm. Over the day, the body produces hormones with different effects.
In the morning, the body will use hormones to wake up. At night, it uses hormones to make you feel tired, usually the hormones cortisol and melatonin.
Over the day, the 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—regulates 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. Avoiding stressors like abuse and stress makes it 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, which are 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 has a genetic origin. 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.
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 stressful, such as death, difficulties at work, problems with a partner, etc.
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, which is the medical term for thinking of and fantasizing about suicide.
- Feeling like you have no energy to do 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 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 but include:
Woke Up Crying from My Dream
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 your body’s natural reaction.
You may be tempted to dismiss the idea if you don’t have sad dreams. However, before doing so, consider that most people’s dreams are almost immediately forgotten.
According to Nature and Science of Sleep, some people remember dreams 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 night.
Night terrors are unpleasant experiences, but you won’t remember them when you wake up 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 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 wake up suddenly, so you may wake up feeling afraid and start to cry.
Stress and Anxiety
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 how life is, but life doesn’t always have to be stressful.
Anxiety is similar to stress in that you spend time thinking about your problems. Stress makes you angry and frustrated, while anxiety makes you nervous and worried.
You may not appreciate that stress and anxiety aren’t just states of mind. Chronic stress and anxiety are mental health conditions that can be treated.
They deserve to be taken seriously as they can have damaging effects. In this context, the most obvious of these 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. Do you immediately start to think about your problems when you wake up? 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 their 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, 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.
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 emotions. 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 preparing the brain to learn and solidifying memory formation.
During the night, the brain consolidates affective memories, and these memories have 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 why emotionally significant events find their way into our dreams. Learning & Memory found that the amygdala was selectively activated during REM sleep. The amygdala plays a decisive role in the processing of emotional stimuli.
The brain processes emotional memories at night. Studies on whether this can cause emotional responses upon waking are lacking, but they may be related 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 vary.
As your hormones change, you may cry more at a certain time of the month, which applies to the hormonal fluctuations of men and women.
The hormonal nature of crying is well-documented. A piece in Scientific American found that the chemical makeup of tears cried in sadness differs from those 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 in 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 a feeling of sadness or fear doesn’t accompany your tears, they may not be tears but 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 identify what’s wrong, keep a dream journal, which is a diary where you record dreams you remember.
With time, this will enable you to build a clearer picture of your typical dreams and identify recurring factors contributing to morning crying.
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 further clues.
A doctor can quiz you on other symptoms or may perform a blood test to identify hormonal changes. Alternatively, they may invite you for sleep tests, which involve sleeping overnight at the hospital, where doctors monitor your heart rate and brain activity.