We cry when we’re happy, sad, and moved, but why? A few of the world’s leading crying experts were asked to weigh in on some of the theories behind our tears and wellness.
Crying relieves stress
Humans are the only species to weep from emotions, but scientists still don’t know exactly how the physical act of crying is connected to our feelings. Why do we cry when we’re sad (and sometimes happy)? One of the benefits of blubbering may be that it helps relieve the physical tension of feeling upset. “It seems that crying begins just after the peak of physiological arousal as sympathetic activity starts to decrease and parasympathetic activity increases, helping to bring the body back to homeostasis,” says Lauren Bylsma, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In other words, crying occurs as our body returns from an aroused, “fight or flight” state to a calm, “rest and digest” state.
Crying boosts mood
It seems like crying would make you feel better if it means your stress is relieved—and it does, sometimes. “In surveys about two-thirds of people generally report feeling better after crying,” says Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida. “It’s likely that people are overreporting or misremembering these benefits of crying, however, because when we elicit crying in a controlled laboratory setting, it’s not as clear that crying makes people feel better. So yes, crying helps our mood—just less than we commonly believe.” And how others react to our crying is one of the most important factors in determining how we feel afterward, according to world renowned crying expert Ad Vingerhoets, PhD, author of Why Only Humans Weep and professor of social and behavioral sciences at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “If they react with understanding and succor, it is much more likely that you’ll feel better than if they ridicule you and you feel embarrassment,” Dr. Vingerhoets says. “In many cases the better mood after having cried is thus the consequence of receiving emotional support and comfort.”
Crying improves communication
Not surprisingly, crying in humans first evolved as a way for an infant to get its mother’s attention. “Human infants are the most helpless creatures—they cannot cling to fur like other primates, or follow their mother like ducks,” says Dr. Vingerhoets. Tears of babies and children add a visual component to this cry for help, and target a specific caregiver who can see them (check out the ways in which babies are smarter than you think!). As grownups, people have adapted this biological function to an emotional one. “Adult tears, like vocal crying, mainly convey the message, ‘I need you, help me!'” Dr. Vingerhoets says. “It is in particular a reaction to a state of helplessness, which is the opposite of fight-or-flight.”
Crying forges bonds
When we communicate with others through tears, we are revealing our own vulnerability. “With supportive people, it can create an increased feeling of bonding and connection,” Dr. Orloff says. “You trust the person enough to cry around them.” Crying is therefore a signal that we feel close to someone, and this can promote an empathetic response and an emotional connection. Dr. Vingerhoets says that because we don’t like to show our weakness to strangers, we try not to cry in front of them, and instead save our tears for those we’re closest to.
Crying is a private release
If crying is such an important communication tool, why do we cry when we’re alone? A poll by the airline Virgin Atlantic, which now gives “emotional health warnings” before sad movies, showed that 41 percent of men hid tears in their blankets while on flights (women were more likely to pretend they had something in their eye). Another study found that many bereaved people grieve while driving because it’s when they finally had “the time and privacy to think and feel.” This may go back to the idea of the body returning to a state of rest through crying—after a busy or stressful day, you’re finally alone with your thoughts.
Dr. Rottenberg also said that crying while alone may still be a way to reach out to the universe. “Often when people cry in private they are actually still appealing for help, such as asking God for help,” he says.
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