When you’re feeling stressed, angry or anxious, having a good cry can leave you feeling inexplicably better. It’s as though shedding tears acts as a physical release for your negative emotions. On average, women cry 3.5 times a month compared to men’s 1.9 times. This refers only to emotional tears, a phenomenon that’s said to occur only in humans but may also occur in elephants and gorillas.
Emotional or ‘psychic’ tears, as they’re sometimes called, are produced in response to strong emotions — stress, happiness, sadness, physical pain and more. These emotions trigger tearing via an intricate connection with your autonomic nervous system. Scientifically speaking, the phenomenon we refer to as crying occurs due to the lacrimal gland located between your eyeball and eyelid, which produces tears.
When you blink, the fluid gets dispersed over your eye, then drains via your lacrimal punctum and nose, which is why crying makes your nose run. If your tears are voluminous, however, they will overflow this drainage system and cascade down your cheeks. There are many purposes for shedding tears. For instance, reflex tears are produced as a form of protection when irritants, such as wind or dust, get into your eyes.
Basal tears, which are secreted at a rate of about 1 gram over a 24-hour period, also serve a protective purpose, helping to lubricate your eyes. Shedding emotional tears or crying, also serves an important purpose, however, with research building that crying may offer numerous physical and mental advantages.
Crying is being considered as a form of self-soothing behavior, i.e., something that can help to calm you down when you feel upset. When a person cries, it serves two broad purposes, helping to provide stress reduction and mood enhancement for the crier while also influencing those around him. In babies, the latter is obvious, as babies cry in order to get attention from adults around them.
Even in adults, however, it’s been suggested that crying promotes empathy and pro-social behavior, facilitates social bonding and reduces aggression. Ultimately, crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces the relaxation response similar to other stress-reducing activities, like deep breathing. This is beneficial to the crier, emotionally speaking, but may also offer a survival advantage of sorts by helping you solicit support and helping behavior.
Another paradox of crying is that while it may initially make you feel worse, it tends to ultimately boost your mood and even relieve physical pain. Research found those who cried during an emotional film had significantly increased negative moods right after, while non-criers’ moods remained unchanged.
But, by the next measurement 20 minutes later, the criers’ moods had returned to baseline and, interestingly, after 90 minutes their moods had not only recovered but also were enhanced compared to their pre-film measurements. So, while crying might initially make you feel worse, it may ultimately make you feel better and then some. Emotional crying is known to trigger the release of oxytocin, the love hormone, and endogenous opioids, aka the feel-good chemicals endorphins. In addition to potentially dulling pain, this may help you reach a state of emotional numbness that helps to buffer extreme stress and perhaps pain.
Shedding emotional tears may also be stress-relieving because they contain a high concentration of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) — a chemical linked to stress. One theory of why you cry when you’re sad is that it helps your body release some of these excess stress chemicals, thereby helping you feel more calm and relaxed. Tears also contain nerve growth factor (NGF), which is a neuropeptide that plays a role in the development and survival of neurons, particularly sensory neurons involved in transmitting pain, temperature and touch.
It’s also known that tears contain lysozyme, a substance with such strong antimicrobial properties that researchers suggested it could reduce bio-threat risks presented by bio-terror agents. As such, there’s a good chance it helps to keep your eyes healthy, too. There’s no shame in crying, but doing so does change the way you’re perceived by those around you, for better or worse. That being said, so does NOT crying. On the one hand, research suggests that tearful individuals are seen as warmer but at the same time are viewed as less competent.
Your age also affects how you’re viewed when you cry. When study participants viewed photographs of people of different ages crying, the images of adults crying conveyed the greatest amount of sadness and elicited the most sympathy, followed by images of children crying and, lastly, infants crying.
Meanwhile, it’s unknown whether lack of crying, or excessive crying, signals an increased risk of mental illness, although at least one review suggested that the perception of a link between crying and depression is unfounded. There’s still much to learn about why we cry, and why some people cry more than others. According to Oriana Aragón, an assistant professor of marketing at Clemson University in South Carolina, suggests we all have a unique crying threshold, which is the point at which our feelings overwhelm us to the point of crying.
Some have a high threshold, some low. At the same time, we also have unique emotional reactivity, which is the intensity a feeling needs to be to make us cry. Some people only cry when their feelings are a 10, while others will cry at a 1.