Woman looks off into the distance while sitting on a rock
A woman looks off into the distance while sitting on a rock. (Photo: Henrik Sellin/Getty)

I Cry Often When I’m in the Mountains. You Should, Too.

If we remain curious instead of ashamed of our tears, crying can inform us of our true feelings when we’re adventuring outdoors

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It was my last run of the day, and I couldn’t hold them back anymore. I steered my snowboard off to the side near some bushes and trees, where I burst into tears. It had been a discouraging day of riding at Keystone, spent chasing my partner down the mountain, shuffling through infuriating flat sections, and generally feeling inadequate on the hill. As inconvenient as it was, I just needed to cry.

Other skiers and snowboarders sailed by, and then a ski patroller skidded over next to me. “Are you hurt? Do you need help?” he asked me through his balaclava. In a weepy voice, I said that I was mostly fine, just ready to call it a day. As if being a grown woman crying on a green run near the base wasn’t embarrassing enough, he responded by handing me two coupons for hot chocolate. I knew he meant well, but I felt even more pitiful and sorry for myself. (At least my tinted goggles hid my watery eyes.)

Growing up, I internalized the idea that crying was a sign of weakness and something to be ashamed of. You weren’t considered tough, strong, capable, or brave if you cried, especially in competitive and athletic spaces. In adventure and mountain sports, we tend to celebrate tears of joy, like when an Olympian crosses the finish line. But it’s still weird and uncomfortable when we witness it in close proximity, or if it happens to us.

It’s not like I cry every time I’m outside. Most of the time I don’t. But I do vividly remember the moments I’ve shed tears—while training for marathons, climbing on exposed routes, trailing behind my friends on a strenuous hike, and after swimming out of a raft on a rapid. In those moments, I felt double the shame: shame for feeling weak, and more shame for crying about it.

But to me, crying simply means that we’re human. And we cry—some of us more than others—for a whole host of reasons: frustration, fear, hunger, exhaustion, introspection, grief, pain, and even joy. There’s also an explanation for tears coming to the surface when we move. Some researchers believe that exercise activates the parasympathetic nervous system, releasing feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and endorphins, strengthening the mind-body connection, and sometimes prompting intense responses like tears.

“We hold such emotion in our body that when we move it, we release it and sometimes our bodies just outwardly cry,” says Hillary Cauthen, a clinical sports psychologist and board member for the Association for Applied Sports Psychology. Crying is just one way to emote, but feelings can also manifest as a scream, laugh, facial expression, posture, or burst of energy.

Katie Arnold, a professional runner, Outside contributor, and the author of Running Home: A Memoir, says she might cry during one run but let out a whoop on the next, depending on her head space. “I think that to cry on a run is so natural because whether you’re feeling grief or rage or joy, it all comes to the surface when you’re pushing your body and you’re pushing your mind,” she says.

She adds that as much as it’s an opportunity to be vulnerable, crying is also an important reminder for us to check in with our bodies and reassess the situation. Is there danger ahead? Is there something we’re mentally working through? Are we hurt? Do we just need a snack?

In general, people who suppress their emotions tend to be less psychologically healthy, according to a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research. That same analysis found that people who are less psychologically healthy are also more likely to need medical services, such as emergency room stays and prescription medication. Before learning to regulate and express his emotions, professional skier Drew Petersen dealt with injury after injury, undergoing eight surgeries. But after a near-death accident in the mountains, he was forced to confront sadness and other negative emotions through therapy and reflection. “Now that I’ve done this work on myself and I’m in a good place, I don’t feel tightness in my back,” he says. “It’s not like I just healed my mind, but healing my mind allowed me to heal my body.”

Many people, myself included, believe that crying is soothing and makes us feel good. We even believe that crying can ease pain. And we’re not wrong. But it’s actually more complex than that. While the specific connection between exercise and crying is not the main focus of most relevant research in this area, clinical psychologist Ad Vingerhoets and other researchers have discovered that crying is more related to communication and empathy than relief. “It’s a very strong signal to others that ‘I need you,’” says Vingerhoets, who has devoted his career to studying stress and emotion. “There is increasing evidence that tears connect, they bring people together, and they stimulate empathy in observers.”

For example, in a 2016 study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology of 6,000 people in 41 countries, respondents were asked to judge photos of people with and without tears in their eyes. People with tears were rated as more reliable, honest, and pro-social. In that same study, researchers also added positive, negative, and neutral scenarios. For example, in the positive situation, the person crying had just been on the receiving end of a proposal. In the negative case, the person had been dumped. And in the neutral scenario, the person was simply cutting onions. “Surprisingly, even with cutting onions,” Vingerhoets says, “if they have tears in their eyes, people are more willing to help them.”

Whether crying makes you feel good depends largely on context, Vingerhoets says. If you’re surrounded by supportive people, crying may feel beneficial. But if you’re with strangers or friends who ridicule your tears, you’re probably going to feel worse.

When Petersen ran a 100-mile ultramarathon last fall, he didn’t cry until the end, despite being in pain. As soon as he crossed the finish line, where he was welcomed by his girlfriend, his sobs were instantaneous. “It felt good to cry because I was able to fully feel and share all that I had just felt alone for 100 miles,” he says.

The night before the run, he also cried with his pacing crew while reading them a letter about his love for them and the significance of the race. “That’s the gift of being alive,” he says. “The beauty of sharing our emotions is that it gives permission and space for others to feel their emotions as well.”

Adventure athletes like Petersen are making space to talk about emotions that surface in the mountains. In some cases, admitting we need a break can even save us from getting into a precarious situation in the backcountry. But crying in outdoor spaces is still often stigmatized as embarrassing, or shameful.“In the outdoors, we feel these amazing highs, we feel stoked, we feel happy, and that has become synonymous with the experience of adventuring in the mountains,” Petersen says. “But we are lying to ourselves, we’re lying to the community, and we’re lying to each other if we don’t admit but more importantly feel the full spectrum of the human experience by expressing all of our emotions.” If the opposite of feeling is numbness, he says he’d rather cry than not at all.

Our tears can be useful tools, whether we use them to check in with ourselves or express to others that we’re looking for support. Maybe we just want to take a bite of the snack bar in our backpack, or maybe we’re in need of a deeper exploration of our feelings through therapy. “One of my catchy lines is, ‘Just feel your feelings,’” Cauthen says. “Then once you have your own range of emotional expression, we look at, how do you physically respond to your feelings?”

It has taken me almost 29 years to unlearn the myths and misunderstandings around crying, and I still don’t feel totally comfortable breaking down in front of anyone, even though I sometimes can’t help it. But thinking back to my day at Keystone, I no longer remember humiliation.

Instead of a pitiful snowboarder, I see someone who had a tough day and wasn’t confident in her abilities on the mountain. And while it was the ski patroller’s job to check in on stragglers, I’m choosing to reframe his outreach as a genuine connection. One human spotted another in distress and extended care. I’ll thank my tears for that.

Lead Photo: Henrik Sellin/Getty

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