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Your Brain On: Crying

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There's nothing like a good cry, or so the saying goes. Whether you're bummed over a breakup or just flooded by strong feelings, a few tears seem to release the emotional pressure. But no other animal on Earth turns on the waterworks in order to feel better. So why do we cry?

"There are currently two main hypotheses," says Ad Vingerhoets, Ph.D., a professor of clinical psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands who studies crying. The first, he says, is that shedding tears helps you recover after feeling emotionally distressed or overwhelmed. While people associate crying with sadness, it's also common to tear up after a joyful or thrilling experience, research shows. Maybe you just got that promotion you've been working toward for years, or you had a close call with a scary health issue. Those types of big-deal events are common tear triggers. (With or without a good cry, here's How to Overcome Life's Toughest Situations.)

The second hypothesis, Vingerhoets says, is that tears are an important signal to others. "We believe that tears convey helplessness and powerlessness, and that their function is to elicit help or stop aggressive behaviors in others," says Asmir Gračanin, Ph.D., also of Tilburg University (and a colleague of Vingerhoets). (Check out 7 Things Calm People Do Differently.) Gračanin says crying might also be a way to alert other people "that something important is at stake."

Past research also shows that crying can be like yawning—you're more likely to shed tears if people around you are crying. Opening the flood gates may help you and your fellow weepers form closer emotional bonds, that study's authors say. (In Japan, there's a popular new form of therapy where people gather to watch sad video clips and cry together—seriously.)

So if you've ever wondered, "Why do we cry?", well, the answer isn't quite so clear.

Your Brain On Crying
While not yet proved, crying seems to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system (PN). Vingerhoets says the PN plays a big role in recovery and relaxation (it's essentially the opposite of your fight-or-flight response). So it's possible to draw lines between a good cry and feelings of emotional catharsis and recovery.

Your tears may also stimulate the release of brain chemicals like oxytocin and endogenous opioids—natural opioids produced by our body, Vingerhoets says. (Learn more about The 20 Most Important Hormones for Your Health.) "If that's the case, that would imply that crying would also have a positive effect on pain perception and pain tolerance," he says. While he and his colleagues are still studying this, it would help explain why things seem to hurt a little less after a cry. Like a shield, your tears may help repel the pain of your sad or strong emotions.

Cry Now, Feel Better Later?
Crying's mood benefits may not always kick in immediately. A new study from Gračanin's team found people who cried while watching a super sad film initially felt worse. But 90 minutes after crying, their mood had not only bounced back but even exceeded how they'd felt before watching the film.

"We observed mood increases in criers, but not in non-criers," he explains. "Although this is a preliminary finding, it points to real benefits of crying for one's mood." (Try these 20 Ways to Get Happy (Almost) Instantly!)

Vingerhoets adds that crying often seems to mark the nadir—or lowest point—of your sad emotional state. So while you may feel particularly crappy during or just after a good cry, you'll likely feel better in no time.

So Is Crying a Good Thing?
Ultimately, how you feel after a cry depends on lots of factors.

"Mood change after crying is strongly affected by social and cultural factors," Vingerhoet's and his colleagues wrote in another study on crying. So if you feel like crying is shameful or a sign of weakness, that's going to change how good or bad you feel after letting loose.

For example: Crying with a friend after a tough breakup might make you feel better, while tearing up in front of your coworkers at the end of a long, super stressful day may leave you feeling mortified. (Can't pinpoint the cause? It may be one of these 19 Weird Things That Can Make You Cry.)

Like laughing when you're nervous or angry, crying is one of those emotional displays that's just tough to pin down. But, in most situations, a good cry seems to be a healthy way to release pent-up emotion and shove away those unhappy vibes. (Just like these 4 Ways Expressing Yourself Boosts Your Health.)

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