The Science of a Good Cry

Nobody puts cry baby in the corner

09.29.16

Crying is a great unifier. If fact, it’s likely the first thing you ever did, your entry into this world: a gulp of air, a wail. I was a weepy kid, an almost sadistically wet-eyed teen, and could be set off by something as unremarkable as a commercial for a pharmacy well into my 20s. And then my boyfriend of eight years started sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend. I’d say I cried for five months straight, a constant leak, waterlogged and frail, until, one day, I simply…stopped.

For someone who had spent a life measuring her emotional state by tears shed, it was a really confusing time. I still felt sad, although my sadness had become more a state of being, rather than an emotion. I felt powerful in my darkness, if not exactly alive. I’m over him, but I never fully regained what I realize now was a softness, a willingness to risk pain for the potential of joy.

Recently, I heard a radio report extolling the virtues of “the good cry,” and I got a little annoyed. It didn’t seem fair that something I had once had such a claim to was now beyond my ability, especially if it was supposed to make you healthier. I am all about being healthier, she says, the woman with the salt lamp, the yoga mat, the crystals on the coffee table.

is-crying-good-for-you-quote-man-repeller-1

So I called Dr. Lauren Bylsma, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. She specializes in crying research, which sounds like a really fun way to spend our small parcel of days on earth. As she pointed out, crying is actually a deeply odd phenomenon: humans are the only animals that cry, and our eyes lubricate without a need for emotional tears, so what’s going on?

Existing but nascent research suggests that tears may help our bodies self-regulate: since blood pressure and heart rate rise before a cry and decrease afterwards, tears could play a function in returning the body to homeostasis. Additionally, tears produced during an emotional episode contain manganese and potassium, both essential nutrients for regulating blood pressure and cholesterol. They also contain prolactin, a stress and immune hormone.

Or at least, we think they do. It turns out it is really, really hard to collect tears. For one, it’s difficult to make someone cry, at least ethically. In Bylsma’s lab, patients watch a scene from the 1979 Jon Voight vehicle The Champ, which has a 40% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and which I found on YouTube. Yes, it’s distressing, but full disclosure: I didn’t cry. This movie has actually been decreed by science to be THE SADDEST MOVIE EVER MADE, so the fact that I came up dry did nothing to assuage my fears.

And even if you can force someone to cry in a sterile laboratory, Bylsma notes that “people get really uncomfortable when they are crying and you’re holding a vial to their face,” meaning scientifically collecting tears is pretty hard work. In her view, it’s more likely that the evolutionary value of crying lies in the social response it prompts, rather than its parasympathetic function.

“If you ask people if they feel better after crying, most will say yes,” she says. “But if you take people into the lab and ask them whether the crying made them feel better or worse, they say they feel worse. It’s the positive social support that generates a mood benefit.” This might indicate that crying evolved as a subtle (or not) signal to your tribe: I need help. (Once, crying while walking up 9th Street in Brooklyn, I was approached by a group of barefoot hippies who asked me to cheer up, told me I was beautiful, that we should all get married, and to pet their dog. I did; he was soft. “Your tears are heavenly,” they promised me, as they wiped my face with their sticky fingers. They were most definitely very stoned.)

is-crying-good-for-you-quote-man-repeller-2

My life coach (I have a life coach), who as a trained therapist has so far refused to engage my fear that I am a dried-up trash husk of a human, says this about crying: “Emotions need to move in and through us. It’s not that I recommend crying specifically, though it is a great way to feel and process whatever is coming up, but rather that people should find a way to express whatever they are feeling in a manner that is appropriate for them and their circumstance.” I think that is therapy shorthand for “You’re perfect, don’t ever change.”

According to Bylsma, there are plenty of reasons that explain a person’s proclivity for or against tears: stigma has conditioned people out of a natural response; individuals with depression or who are being medicated for a mood disorder (hi!) cry less than others; extroverts are bigger weepers than introverts; and yes, women do cry more than men, up to three times more. Stress and lack of sleep also contribute to more tears. The reasons we cry are multifarious, and change dramatically as we age (kids are more likely to cry out of pain, or for attention; adults, on the other hand, report crying from beauty or empathy). In short, no one crier — or cry — is exactly alike.

Ever since I started talking about this piece, I’ve been inundated by crying stories. One girlfriend reported crying at 4 a.m. when her newborn daughter refused to nurse. There was a terminal cancer cry, and a phone call cry with a boyfriend over a stressful upcoming move. My best friend lost her father last year, suddenly and cruelly, and she cries constantly, and it doesn’t really matter why. Today, another friend reported strangling back tears during her office’s “wellness week” ten-minute chair massages. I asked Bylsma when she’d last cried, and immediately regretted it: she lost her cat recently. So yes, we’re crying, all of us, all the time, and that’s good: “It takes a lot to suppress tears,” says Bylsma, and people report significant negative mood effects when they do so.

Coincidentally or circumstantially, who knows, I’ve cried more in the weeks writing this piece than I have in recent memory. I cried during a dance show, washed alive by the beauty of the body in motion. I wine-sobbed when my boyfriend made a comment about our relationship I misinterpreted. My parents announced they’d decided to donate my grandmother’s piano, a 1920s Bechstein that held her spirit as much as anything inanimate truly can, and I wept, alone, a small echo of a much larger loss. Maybe I’m coming alive again, bit by bit, tear by tear.

***

is-crying-good-quote-man-repeller-6

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.

crying-good-for-you

Get more Brain Massage ?
  • Always thought it’s weird that I rarely cry when sad things happen around me but I cry basically every time when I am angry. Definitely feel relieved afterwards though.

    • Aydan

      yes I so so get this too!

  • Aydan

    Crying is one of those nutty things. I haven’t cried in like 6 months, but on Tuesday I was just casually talking to my mom on the phone and started hysterically bawling. I think it was one of those things where all my stresses, my anxieties, etc. etc. just came pouring out of me. Moms man, they just bring it out of us in the best way! (aka it was cathartic and I felt much better post massive cry)

  • Molly D

    Teared up reading. Really nice. I’m curious about the difference between the dignified rolling tear cry and the ugly weep-a-thon (The Hammered Mess). Are they both good for you? Please say yes Dr. Lauren.

    • Yes! As long as it enables you to move through your emotions. The only bad cry is the one that didn’t happen.

  • Maggie Lanham

    I am a huge proponent of having a “cry day” when I can squeeze it in. I settle in to my couch, watch a trigger movie (of which I have an arsenal to choose from), and let the tears roll. It’s such a cathartic experience that I always emerge drained but hopeful and more at peace with whatever stressors instigated the blubbering. It has a similar effect of working out for me wherein I can just let loose of all other thoughts and focus on this one activity. I’ve even gotten my boyfriend to try them every now and again and he reacts the same way. Crying for the win!

    • Fave trigger movie?

      • Kate

        Literally every episode of Parenthood. OOF!

      • Maggie Lanham

        Oh man! So these aren’t in any way groundbreaking, but I’d say my fail-safe is Pride & Prejudice, but About Time will get the job done, as well (I guess the Brits really move me). If I’m feeling nostalgic it’s either Singing in the Rain, White Christmas, or You’ve Got Mail. Do you have favorites?

  • k

    I have dysthymia and I, formerly a smug member of the Non Cryer Club, found myself embattled in long crying (read: ugly sobbing) jags for hours during my worst lows. I’m better now but the proclivity to cry stuck around to a lesser extent. Now I cry mostly out of frustration – I literally cried while sprinting on the treadmill. Can ya’ll relate or do you think I’m just crazy? Hmm

  • I really believe that crying is sometimes actually the best way to deal with things, this has really helped me understand why – thank you

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • Rebekah

    “I still felt sad, although my sadness had become more a state of being, rather than an emotion.”

    This. Even when I was a child I was never a crier. I sat dry eyed through skinned knees, funerals, boyfriends, the first time my son hugged me on purpose, the first 15 minutes of Up. Then my dad died unexpectedly ten months ago, and for the first five or six of those I spent more time crying than not. I would sob at the smallest trigger, in the grocery store, in my car, in the shower, cleaning the bathroom. I would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night and burst into tears. It was a new way of life, I cried everywhere on everything all the time. And then it just kind of stopped. I went through some of his things a few days ago and it felt bizarre that the tears just weren’t happening. I don’t feel less sad, or like I’ve gotten past anything, or had any kind of breakthrough, but it’s like I’ve assimilated the sadness as a constant and now I’m back to never crying.

  • Emma J.

    I hardly ever cry in emotional situations but I bike to work, and if there’s even the slightest wind I tear up. It’s like my eyes are trying to compensate for all the time i spend not crying.

  • I love this so much. Especially the “dried-up trash husk of a human” fear. Since we’re discussing psychology, this is mildly distressing.

  • caoimhe

    I cry ALL THE TIME and I love it. I try to schedule a weekly cry to regulate the emotional system.

  • CarterB

    I love a good cry even though not much IRL makes me cry anymore. If you’re looking for a let it all moment then watch Blue Valentine. You’ll get a great film and one of the best crys of your adult life… Also, we actually don’t have the monopoly on tears. While scientists can’t 100% prove it’s tied to emotion, it’s a known fact that elephants also cry. They’ve been known to cry when they experience the loss of one of their own, especially a baby. I don’t need much more proof than that of their emotional intelligence.

  • Tra

    It’s strange that I find myseld cry the most when there is an astrology event happening, usually a full moon (signifies closure). During the last full
    Moon in september i cried so much that my eyes became so swollen that i freaked out because i thought i might have had caught an allergy!! I had to take a sick leave next day just to make sure i was OK (i was).

  • Mallory Harmon

    I love this! I have gone through my share of constant crying, and as I dealt with the root of what was cause if the tears, my episodes of crying are now few and far between. I think after crying so much, you do become hardened in a sense, and the instances of crying become less. However, I do believe that crying and letting emotion out in that way is good for your soul. To feel so deeply is important.

  • I went through a phase of rarely crying wen I was a teenager. Suppressing it I think, didn’t really have support or confidence. Now I cry aaallll the time. Before work and after work mostly but will also cry at cute puppy videos. My eyes are sore now from a big bawl sesh this morning (my job is killing me slowly lol).

    I wish I could schedule my tears and worries though instead of it affecting my day.

  • ivie245

    Excellent idea you share with us and i think most of the people are interest about science cry! Some of people are want to know this but i think this nothing it just funny cry……