Sleep should be restful, calm experience where we can recover from the day.
It can be a little confusing and worrying if we wake up crying.
So what does waking up crying mean? Should we be worried?
In short, you can wake up crying for a bunch of reasons. Related to anything from emotional dreams to underlying grief (all listed below). The bottom line is that you don’t need to be worried if you wake up crying infrequently. If it happens a lot, it may be worth talking to a doctor.
After experiencing this myself, I dove into the research and put together this article to try and help. In it, we’ll cover:
- What’s Happening When We Cry In Our Sleep
- Why You Might Wake Up Crying
- Whether Sleep Crying = Real Crying
- & The Benefits Of A Good Cry
Sound good? Then let’s dive in.
What’s Really Happening When We Cry In Our Sleep
Anyone who’s ever had a vivid dream can tell you how real it felt. What most people don’t know is that your brain responds to these dreams as if they are real.
The reason we’re not running around our bedrooms and acting out our dreams is due to sleep paralysis. Our brains are still sending the same signals to our muscles as if we were awake, but these signals are blocked while we’re sleeping.
However, this doesn’t always work. That’s why we’ll sometimes see people sleepwalk, act out their dreams, and even talk in their sleep.
Crying during sleep is like a bout of sleepwalking – it’s an overpowering signal which your brain isn’t able to block. While in some circumstances it can be because of underlying grief/stress (see below), it can also simply be the result of an emotional dream.
Why You May Be Crying In Your Sleep
Waking up in floods of tears can be confusing. The last thing you remember you were cosy and happy in bed, and now it’s dark, you’ve been crying, and you’ve got no idea why.
Without speaking to a doctor, it’s hard to get a real explanation. (And even if you do speak to a doctor, there’s no guarantees of finding out exactly why!).
To help, I’ve tried to cover every possible reason behind what causes your tears. Have a read through each, and see if any sound like they might be the cause.
I’m sure we’ve all experienced a few bad nightmares in our time. These are defined as a level above bad dreams. Nightmares include strong feelings of fear, terror, distress, or anxiety. They’re especially vivid and intense – and can truly shake us emotionally.
Now, there’s no way to prevent nightmares. And most of the time, there’s no real explanation behind them. If you’ve been in tears because of a one-off nightmare then I wouldn’t be too concerned. Crying at something so intense is as natural a reaction as you can get.
More prevalent in children, night terrors are nightmares which aren’t remembered on waking.
They often involve other symtoms like sleep walking or thrashing around in bed – lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.
Around 40 percent of children will experience night terrors, and it can trigger crying when they wake up in a confused state. Thankfully, night terrors normally disappear once we start to reach adolescence.
Separate from nightmares, some dreams can include especially emotional triggers. These could be anything from the death of a loved one, to some aspect of our lives falling apart.
As with nightmares – these are often without explanation and can be entirely unrealistic. Yet that doesn’t stop a strong emotional reaction while we’re in the dream, which can leak into real life.
As above, a one off occurance is nothing to worry about. If these are frequent dreams, and are related to real life, it may be worth talking to a counsellor, or at least a close friend to share your worries.
Parasomnia is classified as the acting out of dreams. It’s the category that sleep walking, sleep talking, sleep dancing, etc. is classed under.
This is classified as a sleep disorder, and can be quite serious. Including other symptoms such as bed wetting, teeth grinding, night terrors, and comes hand in hand with a poor quality of sleep.
It’s often made worse, or triggered, by causes like stress, anxiety, irregular sleep schedules, and more. It’s often treated using behaviour therapy or medication from a medical professional.
Now let’s move on from causes which are related to dreams, to those which are more related to real life issues.
Now we’re moving into the realm of reality.
We all go through grieving periods differently. Some people tend to get everything out quickly and move on. For others, it can almost seem like nothing is wrong – until the grief shows itself in other ways.
If your tears weren’t so related to a dream, but you were thinking of a recent traumatic event, then it could be caused by grief. This can be part of a natural process, and may reoccur for some time. On the other hand, if this is continuous over a long period it could be worth speaking to a professional.
The ‘hidden killer’, stress is a highly misunderstood and widely affecting issue.
If you’ve been going through a particularly stressful period – even if you feel like you’re handling it well – the stress of it may be resurfacing in other ways. Especially at night, when your brain has time to process everything.
Again, this may be fine temporarily, but a long-term issue should be addressed with a medical professional. It may also simply be a sign to recognise that you are feeling stressed, and try to move towards solutions to help heal the situation and give yourself a little self-care.
The above two points are temporary ailments, but if those some symptoms are long term we may be talking about depression. Defined as a “mood disorder which causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest”.
Unexplained crying is listed as a symptom of depression. If you think this might be affecting you, please share your worries with a loved one, or a doctor.
A curious type of depression is classified as morning depression. This only affects people in the morning (no, Monday morning in particular doesn’t count!). It’s related to issues with your circadian rhythm.
Sleep Stage Changes
If you’re reading this because you’re worried about your child waking up while crying, this can be caused by sleep stage changes in babies. This is where they transition from deeper to lighter sleep, but get confused by it because they don’t yet understand it. For example, falling asleep with you next to them and a warm bottle, but later waking up alone and in the dark.
Recent Change in Medication
Changes in medication – especially those that can affect our hormones or mood (i.e. anti-depressants) – can bring out surprising emotional events like unexpected crying.
This can happen seemingly unrelated and with no cause. While this may be temporary and will fade with time, a prolonged issue should be consulted with a doctor.
Lastly, crying during sleep has been known to be a symptom of dementia. This is often forgotten by the time the person wakes, and there may be no negative effects of it.
However, it could also be due to the other reasons on this list – including discomfort during sleep. It’s important to try to diagnose the cause in-case it’s due to discomfort, especially with the help of a medical professional.
Is Sleep Crying The Same As Real Crying?
One of the main questions we have when we wake up crying is whether it’s the same as real crying.
Throughout our lives, we tend to only cry due to major triggers of sadness or pain. So to unexpectedly find ourselves doing it at night can be worrisome.
The short answer is that it depends. If it’s dream related, it can be classed as simply acting out a dream – especially if it’s a rare occurrence. Think of it like being equally happy, excited, or scared in your dreams.
On the other hand, crying due to very real reasons – like grief, stress, or depression – is the same as real crying. It’s still different from an instant reaction to a traumatic event, but it may still be brought on by feelings of sadness or despair.
Again – if this is rare, then you may just need some time to pass. But if it’s a prolonged issue, lasting for a month or more, it would be a good idea to seek help.
Benefits of Crying
Now, this has been a pretty somber article!
So to end on a nice note, I wanted to include some real benefits of crying.
- Crying can be soothing/calming. Crying can almost feel like something has really ‘passed’ once you’ve had a good cry. It can bring a sense of calm and acceptance.
- Crying can help ‘clear your head’. Sometimes we get so clogged up with worry, letting it out by way of crying can help clear the fog and help us see clearly again.
- Crying aids sleep. With your worries ‘out of your system’ in a way, it can be much more peaceful and natural to fall asleep – even during a troubling time.
- Crying triggers support. There’s no signal in the human language stronger than seeing another person cry.
- Crying releases ‘feel good’ endorphins. Of course, we cry due to sadness – but afterwards we can feel much better. I’m sure we all know the feeling of a little joke or laugh after crying with a friend. Sometimes it’s the most healthy way of expressing emotion and moving past it, especially together.
Waking up in tears can be worrying and confusing.
There’s often never a direct fix or solution, but I hope this article has helped give you a few possible ideas about why it might be happening.
To summarize – I wouldn’t worry if this has been a rare occurrence. But if it’s a regular thing, or it’s coming hand in hand with constantly feeling sad or down, please consider sharing this with someone close to you, or a medical professional.
As always, thank you for taking the time to read this article!