Why do people cry?
Crying is a uniquely human activity and an emotional one. Unlike the tears which continuously lubricate the eye or are a response to the presence of a foreign body, emotional tears exist primarily to signal a person’s need for connection. For instance, tears of joy encourage others to join the person in their happiness and celebration. Tears of sadness or distress signal that someone needs comfort or support.
Unfortunately, many of us are brought up to believe that tears should be hidden. The idea that crying signals weakness or vulnerability means that many of us avoid crying or can’t cry. A fear for some people is that, if they begin to cry, they will never be able to stop or that crying will be so unpleasant that they won’t be able to bear it. However, our special ability to express ourselves in this way has developed because of its benefits.
The benefits of crying
Though few people enjoy crying, most experience a sense of release and relief afterwards. Part of the reason for this is that the process of crying releases relaxing and mood altering endorphins. There is also some evidence that tears of distress contain stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and that crying ceases when a more positive hormone balance is restored.
Even when people cry alone, this is thought to be an appeal to their own inner resources to calm and comfort them. Indeed, people often use calming self-talk or think about calming encounters with others, while they cry. It follows that those who deliberately suppress their feelings don’t receive the benefits that crying offers and may experience long-term stress if there is no outlet for their pent up feelings.
People who avoid expressing vulnerability or distress through tears are often unable to express their need for support directly either, yet may complain or just feel resentful if care isn’t offered. They may be more irritable than people who let their feelings out more freely yet believe that they would be judged for doing so.
Those who see lack of emotion as a virtue may, nonetheless, find it acceptable to shed tears over some sort of shared event which is widely considered to be shocking, unjust or tragic, such as the death of a celebrity, a pet, the abuse of a vulnerable group, a terrorist act or major accident. In such cases, the incidents are agreed to be distressing to large numbers of people and being affected may attract praise rather than loss of face.
It’s common for people who dislike tears and emotion to be poor at offering support when others cry. Partners, in particular, may find this very difficult, especially when they come from backgrounds where the shedding of tears automatically elicits others’ care. Because attracting support is the main - albeit usually unconscious - purpose of crying, emotional pain is heightened when distress remains unacknowledged.
Some studies have even suggested that postnatal depression is more likely to develop and continue when a partner doesn’t respond to crying. Further studies suggest that the physiological benefits of a good cry - such as improved mood and lowered stress hormones – are lost when others aren’t supportive.
Similarly, feeling ashamed of tears, and embarrassed by the care that’s offered, can negate the helpful effects of crying and make someone feel worse. Even though it may not have been helpful, crying in adults can sometimes increase the more it goes unacknowledged. Crying that continues on and off for long periods of time when there is no obvious ongoing trigger, such as bereavement, can be an indication of depression. This may be the time to seek professional help from a GP or therapist rather than hoping the crying will resolve by itself.
It’s consequently important for us to recognise that crying has a purpose and that socialisation not to cry overrides a natural resource which can be extremely helpful and is nothing to be ashamed of. Any emotion can result in tears, and that’s completely normal. Allowing ourselves to express our emotions helps to prevent or manage mental health issues too, so it’s never helpful to bottle up your feelings.
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