The cathartic benefits of a blubbery cry are pretty much accepted wisdom. But has it been proven by science?
For some of us, it’s hard to let the tears fall, whether that’s simply because we’ve learned to hold back or it’s due to a medical reason (a decrease in tear production can be a side effect of many medications, including birth control, SSRIs, antihistamines and blood pressure medication). An SPCA commercial can induce waterworks for some, others find their eyes only well up when they chop onions, or on a high-pollen-count day. Sure, it’s all crying, but the tears are different; in fact, researchers have identified three main types. Basal tears, which keep our eyes lubricated and protect the cornea from infection, and reflex tears, which we cry in response to physical triggers like smoke, dust or pungent smells, make up the majority of the 50 to 100 litres we produce on average every year. Their content is 98 percent water.
And then there’s a third grouping called emotional tears. The crying that comes with strong emotions—whether it’s deep sadness and grief or extreme happiness and joy—may offer the biggest health benefits. It releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, aka endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that help ease both physical and emotional pain. Emotional tears contain higher levels of stress hormones than basal or reflex tears, and they also contain more mood-regulating manganese, a trace mineral necessary for healthy brain and nerve function. When you release emotional tears, your parasympathetic nervous system is also activated, which lowers heart and breathing rates, lowers blood pressure and restores the body to a state of balance. Deep abdominal breathing can also do it, as can yoga and meditation practice—so if you can’t turn on your tears like a faucet, you should try to reap the benefits of releasing stress in other ways. But there should be no shame in an old-fashioned, middle-of-the-day, bathroom-stall weep: big girls do cry, and they’re better for it.
Did you know?
- Women cry emotional tears on average 30 to 64 times a year, as compared with 5 to 17 times per year for men, according to a study of self-reports from more than 7,000 people in 37 countries.
- A 2011 cross-cultural study of adult crying across 37 countries found that “individuals living in more affluent, democratic, extroverted, and individualistic countries tend to report to cry more often.” The study showed a lot of criers follow distinct trends: Australian and American men cried the most, while Bulgarian, Nigerian and Malaysian males cried least. Countries with the greatest gender equality reported crying more overall.
- Tears are an essential communication tool for babies, and they may serve us well in adulthood, according to several studies. One showed participants images of faces dappled with tears and faces with tears digitally removed. Subjects judged the faces with tears as appearing sadder and rated the tearless faces ambiguously. “Tears add valence and nuance to the perception of faces,” says the study’s lead author. They become a sort of social lubricant, he says, ensuring the smooth functioning of a community by helping people communicate.
- Tears help dogs, too. In a small 2022 study, researchers reported that dogs produce more tears when reunited with their owners than with other humans, and when dogs exhibit watery, shiny eyes, it “facilitates human caregiving,” according to Takefumi Kikusui, an animal behaviour and veterinary medicine specialist at Azabu University in Japan and one of the study’s authors.
- The Japanese are such strong believers in the health benefits of a good sob that they have crying clubs. Rui-katsu (literally, “tear-seeking”) is where people come together to indulge in a communal weep. Hidefumi Yoshida holds workshops across the country, where he helps adults learn to cry. He’s also the subject of a sweet 2020 documentary, Tears Teacher. It may be just the thing to kick off your own sob fest.
- Researchers from the University of Queensland ran an experiment to test whether emotional crying facilitates coping and recovery from unhappy feelings. They showed sad videos to groups of criers and self-described non-criers: the non-criers breathing rates went up, whereas the criers tended to maintain theirs. Criers also, right before crying, experienced decreases in their heart rates, seemingly in anticipation of the cry.
Next: Why Can Sad Music Help Us Feel Better?