I have always been sensitive. Growing up, that meant a lot of tears and, unfortunately, a lot of frustration on my parents’ part. “Why are you crying?” and “that’s nothing to cry about” were frequent refrains in my home. When most frustrated with me and my feelings, my mother would say, “I hope you don’t cry like that at my funeral.” So I spent many, many years trying to stop myself from crying. I felt embarrassed when others saw me cry and would only do so when alone. Even then, it was something I wanted to get over quickly.
Working in the mental health field has certainly helped me change my relationship with crying and tears. I have been honored to witness and support those in emotional pain and make space for their tears. Crying is one of the most human things we do, and it’s universal. In witnessing the tears of others, it has been easier to make space for my own and to know that there is nothing wrong with me for feeling and crying. I have observed the benefits of crying and, alternatively, the cost of holding back tears and stopping ourselves from crying when it’s truly what we need.
Learning about the scientific benefits of crying has helped too. As a cerebral person, I always want to understand why we do things. How do we benefit? What’s the point?
What is crying?
As humans, we cry from the moment we’re born. And unlike other animals who’ll make distress calls when they’re anxious or to alert one another of potential danger, humans are the only animals that have evolved to cry tears as a form of emotional release. Scientists define crying as a purely biological process, “A complex secretomotor phenomenon characterized by the shedding of tears from the lacrimal apparatus, without any irritation of the ocular structures, and often accompanied by alterations in the muscles of facial expression, vocalizations, and in some cases, sobbing, which is the convulsive inhaling and exhaling of air with spasms of the respiratory and truncal muscle groups.” What?!
In lamen terms, they define crying as any instance of shedding tears that is not due to eye irritation, and they specify that crying is often accompanied by changes in facial expression and may include sounds or sobbing.
Why do scientists specify that the tears are not due to irritation? What’s the difference?
Well, the human eye can produce three different types of tears! The first are basal tears, which our eyes produce as a form of lubrication and to keep our eyes healthy (think about how dry it is in the winter and how your hands might be cracking, but your eyes aren’t). Next are reflex tears, which we produce in response to any foreign body (wind, dust, onion fumes) interacting with the eye. The third type, however, are emotional tears, which is what we reference when we talk about crying. Emotional tears are actually produced by a completely different part of the eye (the “lacrimal apparatus”) than the other types of tears! And unlike basal and reflex tears which the body produces automatically, we can control emotional tears to a certain extent. Yet, despite all of the understanding we have thus far on the physiological aspects of crying, we still haven’t been able to reach a consensus on the why. Why do we, as humans, have the capacity to shed tears as a response to strong emotions like joy, grief, frustration, despair, love, and fear (to name a few)?
Why do we cry?
Scientists have long since disproved that other animals cannot feel emotions. While many animals cry out when they feel distressed, humans are the only species observed to cry because of their feelings or to cry emotional tears. Darwin theorized that humans’ ability to shed emotional tears was likely a result of infants squeezing their eyes shut so tightly when they would cry out for their mothers that they would inadvertently squeeze tears out of their lacrimal glands. He speculated that as we evolved, we associated anything painful or distressing with the feeling of crying, but that tears are purposeless.
It’s still unclear if there is a purpose for our emotional tears, but many (myself included) think that Darwin is wrong and that there are reasons why we cry tears when experiencing physical or emotional pain. Throughout the subsequent centuries of study on this, many researchers supported the idea that emotional crying has various implications. Not just for the individual who is crying but also for those who are there to witness them cry. Hypotheses around this subject suggest that crying visible tears is as much social as it is emotional. Crying is such an overt display of emotion, pleasant and more difficult. It can be challenging not to feel something when we witness someone in tears.
Neuroscientists have found that the mirror neurons in our brains are hardwired to react to another person’s display of emotions in the same way that it would if we were experiencing that emotion ourselves. This is part of why many people tear up when they witness someone crying or watch an emotional scene in a movie. When we see someone else crying, it can trigger our emotional response, leading to tears. The mirror neuron system is thought to play a vital role in empathy, which is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. By allowing us to experience the same emotions as someone else, mirror neurons may help us to understand their emotional state better and respond appropriately.
Crying in front of others has also been shown to have many interpersonal benefits. Crying can act as a sign of social trust and a need for attachment. When we cry in front of others, it signals that we are vulnerable and may need their support or protection. This is why it elicits protective responses from those around us, leading to feelings of care and compassion. Crying can also reduce interpersonal aggression by signaling to others that we are not a threat and are willing to be vulnerable. This can de-escalate conflicts and create an opportunity for resolution. Additionally, crying can create opportunities for social bonding. Crying in front of others can elicit feelings of empathy and understanding, which can help make a stronger sense of connection and closeness between individuals.
So why do we try to stop ourselves from crying?
If you’re like me, it might be easy to recall times in your life when you’ve been made to feel like you shouldn’t cry. Perhaps you were instructed to “stop crying” by a frustrated parent who viewed your emotions as an inconvenience, or maybe you felt embarrassed after someone remarked on the way your eyes welled up during a fight or while watching a sappy film. Far too often, we think we need to hold back our tears for fear of being judged.
Although crying is one of the most natural, human things we can do, many societies view crying unfavorably. Some cultures consider the act of crying to be something deeply personal and inappropriate to do in front of others. As previously mentioned, witnessing someone else crying can often make us mirror their emotional response and cry as well, leading many people to feel uncomfortable or uneasy at the sight of tears. Furthermore, most hetero-patriarchal societies have come to associate crying with weakness and, therefore, femininity. As a result, an alarming amount of boys grow up feeling like they can’t cry if they want to be considered a man. This stigma is furthered by the idea that because we can sometimes exert a bit of control over our tears, any display of crying or tears outside the context of a handful of “appropriate” settings is an indication of some emotional imbalance rather than a completely normal response to a complicated emotion.
Some people may also feel that crying is unproductive or does not solve anything, and may try to suppress their emotions to focus on finding a solution to their problems. This can be particularly true in work or academic settings, where there may be pressure to remain focused and productive.
We receive so much messaging throughout our lives that tells us it’s not okay to cry when in reality, crying is a healthy, natural way to respond to and subsequently release intense emotions. Crying seems to have many physical and mental health benefits. In fact, the consensus of the medical community has long been that attempting to hold back our tears can actually cause more harm than good in the long run!
What are the mental and physical health benefits of crying?
- Enhances mood
Show of hands, who has noticed a marked shift in their mood after crying? You wouldn’t be alone. Crying has been observed to make individuals feel better and lighter than before the release. When a person is crying, particularly sobbing, they take in short breaths of cool air in quick succession. And this has the potential to help regulate their core body temperature as well as their brain temperature. According to a 2007 study by the Washington Center for Psychiatry, lower brain temperature directly affects an individual’s mood, and therapeutic regulation of brain temperature can improve various mood disorders. So crying seems to work to cool down our body and brain, in turn improving our mood! This helps to explain why we may be prone to feel so much better after an intense bout of crying.
- Helps to self-soothe and relieve pain
Crying has also been found to be a self-soothing behavior. This is because crying activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which has a calming effect, and it triggers our brains to release feel-good chemicals like oxytocin. The endorphins released are natural painkillers that can help to reduce physical and emotional pain.
- Relieves stress
Studies have found that emotional tears contain more stress hormones (like Leu-enkephalin and prolactin). By crying, you may literally be decreasing stress levels. Researchers have also found that tears have high levels of manganese, a mineral that can impact our ability to regulate our moods. High levels of manganese have been associated with increased irritability, anxiety, and aggression. And our tears seem to help us release this mineral!
- Can aid sleep
A small study suggests that crying helps us sleep better. The combination of the stress-relieving benefits of crying and the amount of energy expended when one is crying may help people get better and more restful sleep.
- Helps prevent diseases
A 2011 study by the Institut für Psychologie in Germany found that different forms of repressive coping, such as resisting the urge to cry, have actually led to increased instances of hypertension, lowered immune response, and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease in addition to the mental health impacts of such behaviors like anxiety and depression.
When is crying a sign of something else?
Given the studies above and the universal nature of crying and tears, it seems evident that crying is an expected and healthy response to any number of emotions. That said, there can be times when it can be something more. There are times when crying can be a sign of a problem, especially if it happens very frequently and/or for no apparent reason or when crying starts to affect your daily life. If crying episodes last for extended periods, such as hours or even days, it may be a sign of a problem. Additionally, crying may be cause for concern if it’s negatively affecting your physical health.
How do you know it’s time to seek support?
If you find that your crying is uncontrollable, happens very frequently, keeps you from engaging in activities, or disrupts your relationships, it likely means it’s time to seek support. Like most things, too much crying can be a cause for concern. And some people suffering from certain kinds of clinical depression may not be able to cry, even when they feel like crying. If excessive crying is causing physical discomfort, such as headaches, congestion, and dehydration, and therefore disrupting sleep; if crying episodes last for extended periods, such as hours or even days; if you’re feeling overwhelmed and thinking about dying; if you feel like crying but can’t; and/or if crying is accompanied by other symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or thoughts of self-harm, it may be a sign of a more serious problem, and you should consider seeking professional help.
For many, understanding and changing their relationship with crying will require work. If you’ve spent most of your life trying to keep yourself from crying or apologizing for your tears, learning to embrace them won’t be easy. One of the things we strive to do with our clients is to help them connect with their feelings and to honor them. If you think you would benefit from having a safe, non-judgmental space to cry, or if you need any support at all, please don’t hesitate to reach out.