Watching a touching movie, going through stressful events at home or work, and even receiving good news might all trigger the same reaction - bursting into tears. Some people cry more easily than others. Nonetheless, crying is a part of every person’s life. Why does that happen? It isn’t clear. Humans are the only species to weep from emotion and scientists still don’t know exactly how the physical act of crying is connected to our feelings.
However, the study of crying did reveal a few interesting effects it has on our body and mind - here are 7 ways in which crying physically and mentally benefits us.
One of the known benefits of crying is that it relieves physical tension and stress. We start crying just after our body reaches a peak of psychological arousal, and the sympathetic activity in the nervous system decreases while the parasympathetic activity increases. In other words, crying occurs as our body returns from a "fight or flight state" to a calm "rest and digest state."
It is also known that crying releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones, that contribute to a better mood. Along with the release of stress, crying (and sobbing specifically) can help regulate and even lower the temperature of your brain. When you sob, you take in many quick breaths of cool air. A normal temperature of the brain is perceived as more pleasurable for the body. As a result, your mood may improve.
It’s important to note that it may take some time for those positive consequences of crying to ‘kick in.' In fact, studies show that the immediate effects of crying may actually make us feel worse. In a study where participants were shown a sad film, most people reported a bad mood right after crying. However, 20 and 90 minutes later, the participants said that their mood was actually better than before the movie. You can learn more about how tears help relieve stress in our previous article The Secret to a Stress-Free Life? Crying Once a Week!
Crying is the first tool of communication people have as infants. Human newborns don’t have the ability to cling to fur like other primates or follow their mother’s scent. Thus, crying likely evolved in humans as a way for infants to get their mothers' attention. Tears add a visual component to this cry for help, making it clearer for the caregiver that the baby needs them.
As adults, we turn this biological function into an emotional one. Adult tears often convey the same message as those of babies - ‘I need support’. “It is, in particular, a reaction to a state of helplessness,” said Dr. Ad Vingerhoets, professor of social and behavioral sciences at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.
Crying in front of others reveals our vulnerability. Therefore, it’s a way for us to signal that we feel close to someone, that we trust them. When people react to a person crying in a supportive and empathetic manner, it creates an increased feeling of bonding and connection.
Related: Why Do Humans Cry Out of Emotion?
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, biochemist William Frey conducted some groundbreaking research on crying that suggested that tears help the body get rid of unwanted toxins. When comparing emotional tears to irritant tears, like the ones triggered by chopping onions, for example, Dr. Frey found that the two kinds have a few chemical differences.
Emotional tears have a higher content of certain proteins that accumulate as by-products of stress hormones like cortisol, which build up during times of emotional turmoil and have damaging effects on our body.
Another benefit Dr. Frey’s research revealed is that crying may help kill bacteria. It is true that tears contain lysozyme, a protein that has the ability to destroy powerful bacteria. However, more research is needed to determine whether or not crying has any actual properties to protect us from harmful bacteria.
Part of the reason no in-depth research on crying was done recently is that it’s very difficult to make people cry to emotional stimuli naturally in a lab environment and have their tears collected.
The basic biological function of tears is to keep the eyes moist and protect them from fumes and debris. Emotional tears seem to have evolved into something more complex than this simple biological process, but this doesn't mean that this primary role of tears is any less important.
Dry eyes that aren’t sufficiently moisturized by tears can lead to irritation, pain, and even vision loss. Another interesting fact is that patients with a dry eye condition called Sjogren's Syndrome had decreased ability to identify their emotions, according to a study. The exact reason why that occurs isn’t clear.
Related: What do Your Eyes Say About Your Health?
Women crying more often than men is not just the result of cultural conditioning. Throughout history, the act of crying has been seen as ‘weak,’ which often led men to hold back their tears for fear of social judgment. But apparently, there is also a physical reason why women cry more frequently than men.
According to several studies, testosterone seems to have an inhibitory effect on crying. It is evident in men with prostate cancer who receive hormones to lower their testosterone levels, and also in animal studies. For women, a change in estrogen levels during PMS or postpartum can increase the tendency to cry.
There is also some evidence that crying can be facilitated by the hormone prolactin in both men and women. Prolactin is a hormone that has more than 300 functions in the body, including regulation of the immune system, metabolism, and reproduction.
While crying is an emotional act, its manifestation is very physical. Headaches, blotchy skin, a runny nose, and full-body sobs are just a few of the effects crying has on our body. As we mentioned earlier, crying is a bridge of sorts between the high arousal state of the fight-or-flight response to a more restful state.
The act of crying itself is still experienced as highly arousing for our bodies, like a workout of sorts. People who cry experience an elevated heart rate and increased sweating, which is what leads to the release of endorphins and causes an array of other physical reactions.
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