Go Ahead and Cry

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  • 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 to show increased “helping behaviors”
  • Crying promotes empathy and prosocial behavior, facilitates social bonding and reduces aggression
  • Emotional crying triggers the release of oxytocin, the “love” hormone, and endogenous opioids, aka the feel-good chemicals endorphins, that may dull physical and emotional pain

By Dr. Mercola

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, U.S. women cry 3.5 times a month compared to men’s 1.9 times.1 This refers only to “emotional” tears, a phenomenon that’s said to occur only in humans (but may also occur in elephants and gorillas).2

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.3 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.4 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 Soothing, May Promote Empathy

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. As researchers explained in the journal Frontiers in Psychology:5

“This universal and uniquely human emotional expression can be elicited by a plethora of events, from those seemingly mundane and unimportant to the most crucial events in one’s life, and ranging from extremely negative to extremely positive experiences.

For example, watching a movie or enjoying the beauty of nature may both make an individual tearful, just as the passing away of attachment figures or birth of a child. Crying occurs predominantly in situations characterized by separation, loss and helplessness, and being overwhelmed by strong emotion, be it negative or positive.”

When a person cries, it serves two broad purposes, they suggested, 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 prosocial behavior, facilitates social bonding and reduces aggression, the study noted. Jonathan Rottenberg, an emotion researcher and professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, told Time:6

“Crying signals to yourself and other people that there’s some important problem that is at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope … It very much is an outgrowth of where crying comes from originally.”

Ultimately, it was concluded that crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system,7 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.”8

Crying May Boost Your Mood, Help Relieve Pain

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 published in Motivation and Emotion found those who cried during an emotional film had significantly increased negative moods right after while non-criers’ moods remained unchanged.9

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). The Frontiers in Psychology study noted:10

“[A] remaining intriguing question is whether crying, and especially sobbing, … induces a … state of numbness mediated by opioid level changes, which may help people to endure physical and emotional pain.”

Shedding Tears May Help You Release Stress Hormones, Literally

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.11 According to Robert R. Provine, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County:12

“Several lines of evidence suggest that the NGF in tears has medicinal functions. The NGF concentration in tears, cornea, and lacrimal glands increases after corneal wounding, suggesting that NGF plays a part in healing. More directly, the topical application of NGF promotes the healing of corneal ulcers and may increase tear production in dry eye …

Although more of a scientific long shot, I suggest that tears bearing NGF have an anti-depressive effect that may modulate as well as signal mood. Nonemotional, healing tears may have originally signaled trauma to the eyes, eliciting caregiving by tribe members or inhibiting physical aggression by adversaries.

This primal signal may have later evolved through ritualization to become a sign of emotional as well as physical distress. In this evolutionary scenario, the visual and possibly chemical signals of emotional tears may be secondary consequences of lacrimal secretions that originally evolved in the service of ocular maintenance and healing.”

It’s also known that tears contain lysozyme, a substance with such strong antimicrobial properties that researchers suggested it “could reduce biothreat risks presented by bioterror agents.”13 As such, there’s a good chance it helps to keep your eyes healthy, too.

Social Implications of Being a Crier or Noncrier

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.14

In a study of 475 people who had reported losing the capacity to cry, meanwhile, noncriers reported less connection with others, less empathy and said they experienced less social support. Despite this, their level of well-being was equal to that of “normal” criers.15

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.16

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. The authors noted:

“[T]here is surprisingly little evidence for the widespread claim that depression leads to more frequent and/or easier crying. There is also little empirical support for the competing claim that severely depressed individuals lose their capacity to cry.”

Let Your Tears Flow — It’s Good for You

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.

“It is quite likely that these two elements — threshold and reactivity — interact along a spectrum,” she told Scientific American. “At one end, an individual with a high threshold who is thick-skinned may rarely feel the need to cry, whereas on the other end, a person with a low threshold who is hypersensitive may be brought to tears easily …

Overall, crying is not a simple reaction but rather a multifaceted behavior that can offer clues to how we process and regulate our feelings and how we experience the world around us.”17

Dr. Judith Orloff, author of the book “Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life NOW,” also shared how important crying is for the psyche and why it’s time to let go of preconceived notions that crying is a sign of weakness. On the contrary, she views it as a sign of strength:18

“[S]ociety that tells us we’re weak for crying — in particular that ‘powerful men don’t cry.’ I reject these notions. The new enlightened paradigm of what constitutes a powerful man and woman is someone who has the strength and self-awareness to cry. These are the people who impress me, not those who put up some macho front of faux-bravado.

Try to let go of outmoded, untrue, conceptions about crying. It is good to cry. It is healthy to cry. This helps to emotionally clear sadness and stress. Crying is also essential to resolve grief, when waves of tears periodically come over us after we experience a loss. Tears help us process the loss so we can keep living with open hearts.”

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