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Let It Out: Why We Cry

Crying is an emotional reaction that’s completely unique to humans. Our capacity for complex thoughts and feelings means that we can cry whether we’re overwhelmed with any emotion—happiness, despair, or fear.
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Not everyone cries the same way or for the same reasons- some people break into tears at the drop of a hat; others remain stony-faced even when confronted with great tragedy or pain. Understanding why we cry isn’t always easy, but understanding the psychological and evolutionary reasons we do it is even more complicated.

Sad or Hurt, Same Response
All tears are comprised mainly of water, oil, and mucous and are produced in the lachrymal glands near the eyes. Made of the same stuff, we actually have three different kinds of tears: basal, which protect and moisten our eyes; reflex, which flush irritants and foreign objects from our eyes; and emotional tears, which are produced in response to strong emotions or pain. The body automatically produces basal and reflex tears, but emotional tears are only ones produced by the process we think of as crying. Emotional tears have been shown to contain higher levels of certain hormones like prolactin, which is associated with breastfeeding and milk production, and manganese, which helps regulate our moods.

Emotion and pain are both processed in the limbic system, the area of the brain that also processes memories, our senses, and behavior. Humans can cry whether we’re in emotional pain or physical pain, and regardless of the stimulus, the tears are the same. Because of this lack of differentiation, some researchers believe that the body can’t really distinguish between emotional and physical pain at all. Even though the mind knows the difference between a broken heart and a stubbed toe, the body generates the same response to both.

Crying—The Body’s Pressure Valve
Although the mechanisms of crying are not yet fully understood, the presence of hormones seems to indicate that shedding emotional tears is a way for our bodies to restore equilibrium. When we experience any kind of heightened emotion—grief, jubilation, anger, or pain—hormones surge through our bodies. Once they’ve built up, the body needs a way to release them and crying may be one way it equalizes itself.

Confirming the conventional wisdom, a study at the University of Florida found that most test subjects reported that their mood improved after a bout of crying. Despite high levels of anxiety and increased heart rates in response to stress, many of the criers eventually report feeling calmer and more relaxed than the non-criers, and those that showed the most benefit were those who received some kind of social support while they were crying.

Some research shows that people who cry in response to stress, pain, or emotion are generally healthier than those who don’t. It’s widely known that keeping emotions pent up contributes to stress levels, which in turn can cause headaches, heart disease, depression, hair loss, and a host of other physical maladies. Crying in order to alleviate stress may be one of the body’s ways of protecting itself.

Nature vs. Nurture
So why do some people cry at the drop of a hat and some never seem to shed a tear? By the time we reach adulthood, women cry on average of sixty-four times per year, but men cry only seventeen times. It might be a result of the hormones, especially prolactin, which directly affects puberty, breastfeeding, and childbirth. Women have 60 percent more of it than men. Dr. William Frey, in his book, Crying: The Mystery of Tears, suggests that prolactin and its interaction with the endocrine system may be the reason that some women are more emotionally volatile than men.

Up until the time when children start school, boys and girls cry at about equal rates. It’s only after then that boys start crying far less. Scientists have yet to determine whether societal pressure forces boys to stifle their tears or whether it’s hormones that ramp up crying once girls hit puberty. However, it’s interesting to note that in old age, when men and women’s hormones equalize again, women begin to cry less and men begin to cry more.

An Evolutionary Adaptation
Could it be that women are evolutionarily programmed to cry more often? Deep down, are we just damsels in distress?

Crying is the first form of communication for humans. During the first few months of life, babies don’t produce emotional tears; their crying is purely a social signal to relate their vulnerability to caretakers. From an evolutionary perspective, crying might work the same way in adults. A study from the University of Texas at Arlington found that when women cry during arguments with men, they were more likely to reach a resolution to their conflict. In arguments where the woman did not cry, the conflicts escalated, suggesting that for women, crying is a valuable tactic that lets people know that the crier needs attention and support.

Even with other women, crying can be a signal that we need help. The University of Texas study found that after watching a film clip of a woman crying, female test subjects felt emotionally closer to the woman. The researchers theorized that this demonstrated women’s biological need for social support networks.

People who cry more than normal may have learned over time that it’s a simple and effective method of getting what they want. However, crying louder and longer isn’t necessarily the best strategy for getting attention. Many evolutionary biologists believe that crying is ineffective when it isn’t genuine. Crying too often is like “crying wolf”; eventually it fails to elicit the right response from others. If someone is known to be prone to fits of tears, other people may take those tears less seriously than the tears of someone not normally disposed to crying.

The science behind crying is imprecise and inconclusive and although there are many promising theories about why, when, and how we cry, plenty of questions remain. When it comes to crying, only one thing is clear—if it makes you feel better, then go ahead and cry your eyes out. 

 

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