How Crying Works

        Science | Emotions

Former hostage Cecilia Drilon, a Philippine journalist, cries after her release after nine days of captivity in June 2008.
Former hostage Cecilia Drilon, a Philippine journalist, cries after her release after nine days of captivity in June 2008.
Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images

Everyone's had one of those days when everything seems to go wrong. Your alarm fails to go off, you run out of gas on the way to work (for which you're already late), you spill coffee all over your desk and get stuck behind a 10-car pileup on the way home. At the end of the day, all you really want to do is take a hot bubble bath and crawl into bed. At this point, some of us resort to nature's tried and true stress relief method -- crying.

Obviously, more serious and traumatic experiences can turn on the waterworks instantly, including births, deaths, illnesses (particularly of children or parents), infidelity and violent crimes. The most common causes of crying, however, are low-level stress or frustration and watching something sad on television. Perhaps this is why cable television networks run "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Beaches" so often. Could that be their way of forcing us to purge our emotions?

Either way, even the most masculine men cannot claim to be tear-free. As humans, we are hardwired to cry and are the only beings on the planet to shed emotional tears, with the possible exception of elephants and gorillas, although that has yet to be proven. So unless you're a saltwater crocodile, who cries only to excrete excess saltwater, chances are you have had a good old-fashioned cryfest at some point recently (it's OK to blame it on "Beaches" if you really want to -- we won't tell).

Crying has been around for ages. History rumors Saint Francis of Assisi to have gone blind from shedding too many tears. One early researcher on the topic attributes this physiological response to the cremation of loved ones in prehistoric days. According to Paul D. MacLean, M.D., Ph.D., when our oldest ancestors cremated their deceased they were overcome by emotions, as well as the smoke that got in their eyes. Dr. MacLean believed that these factors caused reflex tears and forever connected death and tears in our psyches.

In this article you will read about how crying is perceived in today's society and how men and women differ both physically and emotionally as it relates to shedding tears. We'll also discuss the physiology behind crying, the various types of tears and how crying may actually help you avoid and diagnose health problems.

The Purpose of Crying

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What happens when you cry, exactly? A salty fluid chock full of protein, water, mucus and oil is released from the lacrimal gland in the upper, outer region of your eye. This fluid, better known as tears, then flows down the surface of your eye, across your face and smears your mascara.

Of course, not all tears are of the emotional variety. In fact, three types of tears exist, all with different purposes. Basal tears are omnipresent in our eyes. These constant tears are what keep our eyes from drying out completely. The human body produces an average of 5 to 10 ounces of basal tears each day. They drain through the nasal cavity, which is the reason so many of us develop runny noses after a good sobfest.

The second type is reflex tears, which serve to protect the human eye from harsh irritants such as smoke, onions or even a very strong, dusty wind. To accomplish this feat, the sensory nerves in your cornea communicate this irritation to your brain stem, which in turn sends hormones to the glands in the eyelids. These hormones cause the eyes to produce tears, effectively ridding them of the irritating substance.

The third type of tears is emotional tears. It all starts in the cerebrum where sadness is registered. The endocrine system is then triggered to release hormones to the ocular area, which then causes tears to form. Emotional tears are common among people who see Bambi's mother die or who suffer personal losses.

The phrase "having a good cry" suggests that crying can actually make you feel physically and emotionally better, which many people believe. Some scientists agree with this theory, asserting that chemicals build up in the body during times of elevated stress. These researchers believe that emotional crying is the body's way of ridding itself of these toxins and waste products.

In fact, one study collected both reflex tears and emotional tears (after peeling an onion and watching a sad movie, respectively). When scientists analyzed the content of the tears, they found each type was very different. Reflex tears are generally found to be about 98 percent water, whereas several chemicals are commonly present in emotional tears [Source: The Daily Journal. First is a protein called prolactin, which is also known to control breast milk production. Adrenocorticotropic hormones are also common and indicate high stress levels. The other chemical found in emotional tears is leucine-enkephalin, an endorphin that reduces pain and works to improve mood. Of course, many scientists point out that research in this area is very limited and should be further studied before any conclusion can be made.

Incidentally, in Japan some people have taken the notion of "a good cry" to the next level. They hold organized crying clubs where they watch sad movies and television shows and read tear-inducing books.

The reasons for our crying changes as we grow from babies to adults. Learn more on the next page.

Crying At Different Ages

A baby cries at the Newborn Care unit at Medical City hospital in Baghdad, Iraq.
A baby cries at the Newborn Care unit at Medical City hospital in Baghdad, Iraq.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

During our earliest weeks and months, we cry to have our most basic needs fulfilled. If we're too hungry, sleepy, gassy or dirty, we cry so that a caretaker can rectify the problem. As babies grow and mature, however, crying becomes a more sophisticated way of communicating specific and varying needs, so it becomes necessary to change the pitch, intensity and length of the cry.

Babies are also believed to change their crying goals sometime around the age of 10 months. At this time, give or take, they often cry to gain attention for other reasons. Some experts believe this to be the beginning of manipulative crying. Some studies have reported that women in particular continue this behavior throughout life in order to manipulate others into giving them what they want -- for example, forgiveness, pity or a diamond bracelet [source: The Age].

After babyhood ends, researchers believe that girls and boys do equal amounts of crying until they reach the hormone-fraught adolescent years. As levels of testosterone skyrocket in boys, their amount of crying plummets. The opposite is true for girls, whose estrogen levels begin to rise substantially during the early teenage years. This is especially interesting, considering the relationship between the protein prolactin and breast milk production, which only happens in women. Perhaps this is why women cry roughly four times as much as men, according to biochemist and researcher William Frey and co-author Muriel Langseth, who wrote "Crying: The Mystery of Tears."

Molly Jo Geisen cries tears of joy as her brother, 2nd Lt. Brian Geisen, graduates from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. in 2008.
Molly Jo Geisen cries tears of joy as her brother, 2nd Lt. Brian Geisen, graduates from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. in 2008.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Frey estimates that women have about 60 percent more prolactin in their bodies at any given time than men [source: Women's Health]. He also believes that these elevated levels cause women to cry more because the protein revs up the endocrine system, which makes people more likely to cry. One study that required research subjects to record how often they cried over a one-year period found that women cried roughly 64 times a year, compared with only 17 for men [source: TheAge.com].

Interestingly, pretty much everyone involved in the study underestimated what his or her results would be at the end of that year. Another theory put forth to explain why men cry less is that they sweat a lot more on average, thereby releasing some of the toxins found in emotional tears. With age, however, the tables turn on men and women as it relates to crying. According to Women's Health Magazine, in middle age, men begin to cry more and get angry less, while women experience the exact opposite. This is due in large part to our old pals testosterone and estrogen, which begin to decline in men and women respectively and help to even out the playing field.

Frequency isn't the only aspect of crying that varies between the sexes. According to Women's Health Magazine, men typically cry only when suffering major losses. The rest of the time they just get angry when they are stressed out or frustrated. Women, however, are more likely to tear up when simply frustrated. Women tend to cry more loudly and with many more tears than men. This is believed to be because men have smaller tear glands than women, so they just can't produce the volume in one sitting that women do.

Popular lore holds that crying is a sign of weakness among people, especially men. One study even reported that people believed that others would be more bothered by male crying than they would be personally. According to the researchers, this shows a considerable acceptance of men shedding tears, although it still may fail to be commonly acknowledged. In fact, some men who cry publicly are viewed as sensitive and enlightened. Some public figures even consider it a good PR move to cry publicly in order to gain sympathy during a crisis.

So how can crying actually help you? On the next page, we'll find out.

Cry It Out

The relative of a Medellin, Colombia, landslide victim cries during the funeral on June 2, 2008.
The relative of a Medellin, Colombia, landslide victim cries during the funeral on June 2, 2008.
Raul Arboleda /AFP/Getty Images

As already mentioned, many people and even scientists believe crying is beneficial. Frey believes that crying could be a safety mechanism of sorts because it rids the body of stress-related toxins. Whether or not you buy into this theory, most psychologists believe that holding your emotions in can be dangerous over the long-term. In fact, some research indicates that stifling emotional tears can cause elevated risk of heart disease and hypertension. Other studies have shown that people suffering from such conditions as colitis or ulcers tend to have a less positive attitude about crying than their healthier counterparts. Psychologists recommend that people suffering from grief express their emotions through talking and crying, rather than keeping their emotions in check.

Unfortunately, many diseases and conditions feature crying as a main symptom, rather than a solution. For example, postpartum depression (PPD) is a substantial period of emotional upset experienced by about 9 to 16 percent of women following childbirth. It can result in excessive crying, among other symptoms (see APA.org for a full description of the disorder and its symptoms).

Increased crying is also common in individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often endured by those who experience violent crime or another serious emotional upset, as well as soldiers returning from war (visit APA.org for more information on the possible emotional repercussions of military deployment).

Overall, it's important to remember that crying is a critical part of the human emotional makeup, just as laughing is. While you may not want to cry in front of your boss or an ex-boyfriend who's with his beautiful new girlfriend, it is largely believed to be better both emotionally and physically to "let it out" rather than keeping it all inside.

See the links on the next page for more information on crying, emotions and related topics.

Crying: Lots More Information

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Sources

  • American Psychological Association. "Postpartum Depression." APA Online. http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/postpartum.html
  • China Daily.com. "The Benefits of Crying." http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/citylife/2006-09/04/content_680582.htm
  • Flintoff, John-Paul. "Why We Cry." The Age.com. 30 Aug 2003. http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/08/27/1061663846142.html
  • Hingston, Sandy. "Why We Cry." Women's Health. Oct 2006. http://www.womenshealthmag.com/life/emotional-health-guide
  • Kary, Tiffany. "Crying Over Spilled Semen." Psychology Today. 10 June 2008. http://psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20021002-000009.html
  • LaRaia, Barbara. "Gender Differences and the Health Benefits of Crying." San Mateo Daily Journal. 12 Jan 2006. http://smdailyjournal.com/article_preview.php?id=53397&eddate=01/12/2006
  • Munsey, Christopher. "Operation Cope and Heal." APA Monitor. April 2007. http://www.apa.org/monitor/apr07/operation.html
  • PBS Kids. "Dealing with Death: Let it Go, Let it Out." http://pbskids.org/itsmylife/emotions/death/article5.html
  • PBS Kids. "Dealing with Death: What is Grief?" http://pbskids.org/itsmylife/emotions/death/article3.html
  • Thomson, Desson. "Why We Cry at the Movies." Seattle Times. 12 Nov 2007. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/entertainment/2004007878_cryatmovies120.html
  • U.S. Library of Congress. "Why does chopping an onion make you cry?" http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/onion.html
  • Witchalls, Clint. "Join the Blub: The Benefits of Crying." The Independent. 10 April 2007. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-wellbeing/health-news/join-the-blub-the-benefits-of-crying-444108.html