Waking up sad and crying can be disturbing, especially if you’re not sure why. It would be one thing if you had a particularly sad dream. That’s easy enough to understand, after all. But what if there’s no clear reason to cry? What about if you woke up feeling normal, but started crying for no real reason? It’s enough to make you worry about your health.
If you just woke up and started crying, don’t worry. Crying after waking up isn’t a sign that there’s something wrong with your health. However, it may be a sign of depression, anxiety or stress. All of these problems ARE treatable.
So, why might these conditions make you cry without warning? Well, diurnal mood variation might be the explanation. This is where the way that depression changes your brain can make you especially unhappy in the morning. The problem might also be related to parasomnia, a group of disorders related to odd behavior during or immediately after sleep.
Why Am I Waking up Sad and Crying?
You might be waking up sad and crying due to depression. Depression is often misunderstood. It isn’t something you can shake off by thinking positive thoughts. It’s caused by a mixture of hormones, environmental stimuli, diet, and brain structure. It’s a condition that you may need help to overcome successfully.
What is Depression?
Depression isn’t a feeling of low mood. It causes you to feel consistently sad over the course of days, weeks, months and even years. It is associated with feelings of unhappiness, hopelessness and low self-esteem. You may find tasks draining, even simple tasks, which might lead to you doing little in a day.
Depression affects people in unique ways. You may not be experiencing all of the feelings above. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have depression. The reason why you might have depression is due to diurnal mood variation, or morning depression.
Diurnal Mood Variation and Morning Depression
Diurnal mood variation is one of the core symptoms of depression. It refers to your mood changing over the course of a day, on a regular basis. This might mean that you feel particularly depressed each morning. By contrast, other people might experience their worst depressive moods in the afternoon or evening. Over the course of the night is also common.
According to an article in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, the 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’ll use hormones to make you feel tired. This is mostly related to the hormones cortisol and melatonin.
Over the course of the day, your body produces hormones to make you feel hunger or sexual desire, for example. However, in most people with depression, the body doesn’t regulate sleep properly. This same kind of circadian rhythm—also called the ‘sleep homeostat—also seems to regulate mood. This might be why you wake up crying each morning.
What Are the Causes of Depression?
Depression has a multitude of causes. These causes stem from both nature and nurture. It seems that some people’s genetic makeup predisposes them to depression. By avoiding stressors like abuse or stress, it is possible to avoid depression by removing its triggers.
According to Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, the ‘cornerstone’ of depression is impairment in ‘central monoaminergic function.’ Monoamines are neurotransmitters: hormones that the brain uses to communicate with itself and with the nervous system. In the case of depression, the ‘monoamine theory’ proposes that a deficiency in norepinephrine or serotonin may be the cause.
This lack of effective neurotransmitters seems to have a genetic origin. This 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. If one twin has depression, it is likely that the other will too.
However, there are many 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: the death of a loved one, difficulties at work, difficulties 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. That’s because they can be difficult to distinguish from day to day experiences.
Let’s take a look at 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: restlessness, agitation, and worrying
- Changes in appetite: either eating more or less than you usually would
- Aches and pains that don’t seem to be related to physical injury
- Feeling excessively guilty, often for things that
- Moving, even speaking slower than you usually would
- Low sex drive
You may also notice social symptoms. These include doing worse at work or school or avoiding contact with others. You might also neglect your hobbies and interests and have a difficult home life. However, depression varies in severity.
With mild depression, you may not notice many of these symptoms at all. With severe depression, you may notice all of them, although that is unlikely. In the severest cases, you may also notice visual and auditory variations.
So, depression—or more accurately, diurnal mood variation—might cause you to cry when you wake up. But it’s not the only cause.
What Else Could Cause Crying in the Morning for No Reason?
Other potential reasons for you to wake up crying aren’t as serious as depression. Some of them aren’t even worth worrying about. Let’s take a look at what else might be to blame.
1) Woke Up Crying from My Dream
The most obvious reason why you might cry when you wake up is dreams. If you have sad dreams over the course of a night, it’s little wonder you wake up crying. Waking up crying from a dream or nightmare is absolutely nothing to worry about. It’s your body’s natural reaction. Dreams can make you happy, after all, so of course, they can sometimes make you sad.
If you don’t have sad dreams, you might be tempted to dismiss this idea out of hand. However, before you do, consider this: the majority of 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. This is related to visual processing skills.
You may, therefore, 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. So, if the problem is a recurring one, it’s not likely to just be your dreams.
2) Night Terrors
Another cause of waking up crying is night terrors. Night terrors are highly unpleasant experiences, but you typically won’t remember them when you wake up. That’s because they occur during non-REM sleep—when you aren’t dreaming. You might therefore 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 are partially awake but partially asleep at the same time. You aren’t able to 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 even 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 who’s with you, like a partner. Other symptoms include increased heart rate, faster breathing, and sweating.
People who have night terrors typically wake up very suddenly. You may feel very afraid and start to cry. This could be why you’re crying in the morning.
3) Stress and Anxiety
Your crying might also be the result of 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. But you might not appreciate that the problem has got out of hand; you might think “that’s just the way life is.” But life doesn’t always have to be stressful.
Anxiety is a similar condition. It’s similar to stress, in that you spend your time thinking about the problems facing you. Stress makes you feel angry and frustrated. By contrast, anxiety makes you feel nervous and worried. The two conditions are essentially two sides of the same coin.
What you might not appreciate is 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 and can have serious 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 one of stress and anxiety, you can tell fairly 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 might be the cause.
4) REM Sleep Behavior Disorder
Rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (or RBD for short) is a condition characterized by the person with it acting out their dreams, and mirroring both the behaviors and movements from what they’re dreaming. According to a paper in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, the condition is caused by a simple problem. During normal REM sleep, the brain turns off its connection to the body’s muscles. That’s 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 above, 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 typically involve fighting, chasing or running. Abnormal vocalizations include grunting, speaking or laughing. Shouting and swearing may also occur.
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 reasons that are unclear. However, RBD isn’t solely a symptom or sign of Parkinson’s disease. It may, therefore, be the reason for your crying at night.
5) Confusional Arousals
Confusional arousals are periods of confusion upon waking. They typically occur after waking from deep sleep. Examples include sleeping after sleep deprivation, or the deep sleep caused by medications. However, the confusion isn’t what’s interesting about them. What is of particular interest here is that, prior to waking, a person exhibits strange behavior.
According to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, confusional arousals cause agitated behavior. This includes calling out, thrashing and crying. Confusional arousals are, again, more common in children. But they’re not unknown in adults. Each episode can last somewhere between 10 to 15 minutes, although some are much longer—up to an hour.
Confusional arousals last longer the more somebody tries to wake you. This is often a person’s first instinct. They can be triggered by a variety of causes like stress, anxiety or sleep deprivation. Alternatively, if you’re taking a medication that induces deep sleep, then this may be the cause. Either way, this may be why you wake up crying in the morning.
6) Emotional Processing during Sleep
You might have heard that dreams are the brain’s way of processing emotion. This has long been ‘common knowledge.’ But recently, the idea has been increasingly backed up by scientific research. According to a paper in 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.
Put simply, during the night, the brain consolidates memories. This mostly applies to ‘affective’ memories. These are memories that produced an emotional effect on you, whether positive or negative. So, during the night, your brain consolidates memories that are emotionally important. This is especially the case soon after an event.
This may be the reason why emotionally significant events find their way into our dreams. This is backed up by scientific studies of the brain. For example, a paper in 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 your brain processes emotional memories during the night. Studies on whether this can cause emotional responses upon waking are lacking. However, this may be related in some way to causing emotional dreams and behavior like crying.
7) Hormonal Fluctuations
While it’s unkind to dismiss somebody’s crying as a simple hormonal reaction, this may not be incorrect. Certain hormones can cause people to cry more easily, or more often. In particular, hormone imbalance can cause feeling upset and crying. For example, estrogen and progesterone can cause mood swings, which range from anger to sadness.
Neurotransmitters can also fluctuate—serotonin being an example. 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. You might, therefore, find that as your hormones change, 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 to tears produced for any other reason, like fear or anger. Tears produced by emotional crying contain the hormones prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and Leu-enkephalin. They also contain more potassium and manganese than other tears.
All of this is to say hormones might make you more susceptible to crying during the morning. If you’ve noticed a pattern to the way that you cry—for instance in the middle of each month. It may be hormonal.
8) Are You Actually Crying?
Finally, have you considered whether you are 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 might expect, dry eyes produce more tears than usual. This is because the tear glands go into overdrive. They try and moisten the eye more than usual.
Dry eyes are caused by a host of environmental effects. It could be that you wear contact lenses during the day. It could also be that you sleep in a dusty room—whether that’s because you haven’t vacuumed for a while, or you need to change the bed sheets. A humidifier might be able to help.
How Can I Tell What’s Wrong?
The first thing you should consider doing to figure out what’s wrong is keeping a dream journal. A dream journal is exactly what it sounds like: a small diary where you record any dreams that you remember having. Over the course of time, this will help you build up a clearer picture of your typical dreams. You may identify recurring factors that contribute to your crying in the morning.
Next up, you should think about recording yourself while you sleep. This might sound odd, but if you sleep without a partner, it’s the only way to identify whether you’re repeatedly waking from nightmares, dreams or night terrors over the course of a night’s sleep. Try it for a few nights and see what you find. You might also notice that you talk in your sleep, which could give you some more clues.
Last but not least, you should consider talking with a physician. A doctor will be able to quiz you on other symptoms of conditions like depression, stress, and anxiety. They can take blood tests too, to identify hormonal changes. Alternatively, they might bring you in for sleep tests. These involve sleeping overnight at the hospital. The doctors monitor your heart rate and brain activity. They can then use this data to make a diagnosis.
What you should know is that the problem here isn’t that you cry in the morning. The problem may be one of depression, anxiety or something similar. These conditions are severe and require treatment. You should contact a physician to talk more about the issue. They will be able to help you with the relevant underlying problem.