I often cry when I’m in the mountains. You should too.
It was my last race of the day and I couldn’t hold them back any longer. I steered my snowboard sideways near bushes and trees, where I burst into tears. It had been a daunting day riding Keystone, spent chasing my partner down the mountain, traversing exasperating flat sections and generally feeling inadequate on the hill. As embarrassing as it was, I just needed to cry.
More skiers and snowboarders passed, then a ski patrol skidded past me. “Are you hurt? Do you need help?” he asked me through his hood. In a tearful voice, I said I was doing pretty well, just ready to call it a day. As if being a grown woman crying on a green track near 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 glasses 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 witnessed close by, 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 vividly remember the times I shed tears – training for marathons, climbing exposed routes, trailing behind my friends on a strenuous hike, and after swimming on a raft in a quick one. In those moments, I felt double shame: shame for feeling weak, and even more shame for crying about it.
But to me, crying just means 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 is also an explanation for the tears that come 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 causing intense reactions like tears.
“We have such emotion in our body that when we move it, we release it and sometimes our body just cries,” says Hillary Cauthen, clinical sports psychologist and board member of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology. Crying is just one way of feeling, but feelings can also show up in a cry, a laugh, a facial expression, a posture, or an outburst of energy.
Katie Arnold, a professional runner, Outside contributor and author of Running home: a memoir, says she can cry on one run but let out a scream on the next, depending on her headspace. “I think crying while running is so natural because whether you feel grief or rage or joy, it all comes to the surface as you push your body and push your mind,” she says.
She adds that while 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 are mentally working on? Are we hurt? Do we just need a snack?
In general, people who repress their emotions tend to be in poorer psychological health, according to a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Practice and Research in Psychotherapy. This same analysis found that people with poorer psychological health are also more likely to need medical services, such as emergency room stays and prescription drugs. 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 anymore,” 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, think that crying is soothing and makes us feel good. We even believe that crying can relieve pain. And we are not mistaken. But it’s actually more complex than that. Although the specific link between exercise and crying is not the main focus of the most relevant research in this area, clinical psychologist Ad Vingerhoets and other researchers have found that crying is more related to communication and empathy than relief. “It’s a very strong signal to other people that ‘I need you’,” says Vingerhoets, who has spent his career studying stress and emotions. “There is growing evidence that tears connect, bring people together and ignite empathy in watchers.”
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 in tears were found to be more trustworthy, honest, and prosocial. In this same study, the researchers also added positive, negative and neutral scenarios. For example, in the positive situation, the person crying had just received a proposal. If not, the person had been dumped. And in the neutral scenario, the person was simply chopping onions. “Amazingly, even with chopped onions,” says Vingerhoets, “if they have tears in their eyes, people are more willing to help them.”
Whether crying makes you feel good largely depends on the context, says Vingerhoets. If you are surrounded by supportive people, crying can be beneficial. But if you’re around 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 the pain. As soon as he crossed the finish line, where he was greeted by his girlfriend, his sobs were instantaneous. “It felt good to cry because I was able to feel and fully share everything I had just felt alone for 100 miles,” he says.
The day before the race, he also cried with his stimulation team as he read them a letter about his love for them and the importance of the race. “It’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 make room to talk about the emotions that surface in the mountains. In some cases, admitting that we need a break can even save us from being in a precarious situation in the backcountry. But crying in outdoor spaces is still often stigmatized as embarrassing or shameful. “Out in the open, we feel these incredible highs, we feel thrilled, we feel happy, and it’s become synonymous with the mountain adventure experience,” Petersen says. “But we lie to ourselves, we lie to the community and we lie to ourselves if we don’t admit it, but above all feel the full spectrum of human experience by expressing all our emotions.” If the opposite of the feeling is numbness, he says he’d rather cry than not cry at all.
Our tears can be useful tools, whether we use them to check in with ourselves or to express to others that we are looking for support. Maybe we just want to grab a bite from the snack bar in our backpack, or maybe we need 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 expressions, we look at, how do you physically react to your feelings?”
It’s taken me nearly 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 sometimes I can’t stand my ground. prevent it. But thinking back to my day at Keystone, I can’t remember the humiliation.
Instead of a pitiful snowboarder, I see someone who had a rough day and wasn’t confident in their mountain abilities. And while it was the ski patroller’s job to check on stragglers, I choose to reframe his outreach as genuine connection. A human spotted another in distress and in extended care. I will thank my tears for that.