The Science of Crying It Out
Why does crying make us feel better and help sort through our emotional issues?
Whether it’s seeing our home team lose or splitting up with a partner, we’ve all had a cry at some point in our lives. Those big drops of sadness even have their own name, and are distinct from regular eye moisture: They’re referred to as emotional tears, as opposed to basal tears (the ones which keep our eyeballs nice and wet) or reflexive tears (which appear as a reaction to an external stimulus, such as chopping onions). We often feel worn out after a cry like this, but does weeping really make us feel better?
Science indicates that it does. In multiple studies, people questioned after sobbing sessions reported feeling more relaxed and relieved than before—so long as they were crying about something that really mattered to them, at least. As psychologist Randolph Cornelius pointed out, in experiments where subjects were provoked into crying by watching sad movies, they usually didn’t experience a lift in mood. In fact, they sometimes experienced a drop: Rather than working through personal issues, the tears in these cases were merely a reaction to some depressing fiction.
It’s possible that sad movies can help, given enough time, however. Scientists at the University Of Tilberg surveyed people watching concentration camp comedy-drama Life Is Beautiful and moving pooch flick Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, and found that subjects’ moods did improve following a movie-inspired cry, but only after a delay. While people who cried during the movies felt worse immediately afterwards, within 20 minutes they had returned to the same mood as before, and after 90 minutes, they were in an even better state of mind. But what, physically speaking, causes this lift in mood?
Studies are inconclusive. In the 1980s, scientist William Frey suggested that crying flushes out stress hormones, but now researchers believe the amount is too insignificant to matter (especially since most of the tears would likely be reabsorbed through the nose anyway). Another theory is that crying releases endorphins—the feelgood chemicals that dull pain—but this has never been satisfactorily tested. A third—also unproven—idea is that sobbing makes us breathe in more cold air, possibly cooling the hypothalamus (a neural control center at the base of the brain): A lowered brain temperature has been found to improve mood.
We do know that there’s a definite link between crying and increased activity in our parasympathetic nervous system, the network that automatically relaxes the body by slowing our heartbeat, constricting our airways, and aiding digestion. It’s unclear whether this boost in activity causes the tears or just accompanies them, but the calming result is the same: We experience an emotional and physical release, which might account for that post-cry tiredness.
Not only does crying make us feel better, it can actually help us work through our emotional distress more quickly, along with talking and thinking. “Crying does help us process faster than if we don’t cry at all, but it’s not the only thing – it’s part of a package of expressing it,” explains Roger Baker, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Bournemouth University and author of Emotional Processing: Healing Through Feeling. “If your father died, your natural reaction would be to cry. You wouldn’t be able to get it out of your mind, you’d be discussing it a great deal, and you couldn’t work or do anything initially. But gradually, the turmoil would subside. You’d reach a point where you could look at photos, and although you’d remember him, there would be no powerful emotional reaction. At that point, you could say it has been emotionally processed. But it’s not the passing of time that does that—it’s all the things you’ve done in between to help you to process it.”
In other words, the old cliché about time being a healer isn’t necessarily true—it’s not the amount of time that’s passed since a traumatic event, but the amount of time you’ve actually spent dealing with it. You need to talk, think, and let yourself have those tearful moments.
If someone avoids their emotions and doesn’t cry because they’re afraid of showing weakness, that processing can’t happen. The feelings then go into “cold storage” and can re-emerge more negatively later—a classic case of bottling it up. Due to cultural ideas of gender behaviour, men are more likely to do this than women: Studies reveal that although women cry around five times a month, men only cry once. Women are also more likely to cry over genuinely upsetting events, whereas men might allow themselves to have a snivel over the football and be done with it.
There’s no obvious genetic explanation for this, although developmental observations reveal that girls are generally more verbal at an earlier age, inventing games and talking about relationships, while boys prefer to busy themselves with trucks and trains. It’s depressingly possible that men have simply internalised a message to “man up” from the get-go.
While evidence suggests that crying normally has a positive effect, this may not apply to those suffering from depression. Rather than helping a person to release their feelings and move on, it can become part of a pattern of negative thinking. “You feel like a failure, so you cry, and it reinforces that idea—look at how much I’m crying, I’m a baby, so I am a failure,” says Baker. “You get caught in these ruminative loops. It’s not changing anything.”
As for the longstanding myth that crying is a sign of higher emotional intelligence, Baker is quick to point out that it really depends on the scenario. “If you look at TV shows like The X Factor, they’re all geared up to make people cry. There’s a very overt expression of emotions, and that’s not necessarily a sign of intelligence!” he explains. “But you could say that emotional intelligence is being in tune with your emotions, understanding your emotions and responding to them. So in that sense, it could be true.”
If nothing else stops those tears, you can at least take comfort in knowing that, according to science, reality TV is definitely stupid.