It may surprise you how often both men and women cry, despite stigmas around this normal human response: a 2019 study showed that, during a 30-day period women cry 4.6 times and men cry 1.49 times, on average. I am glad more light is being shed on the subject; so many of us tend to fight the onset of tears, when crying is in fact a natural and beneficial response to several common emotions such as grief, sadness, dejection, and even joy. Here, I explain why we cry and some of the health benefits that tears can bring.
Why do we cry?
Tears can be triggered by our emotions, but they are also a practical and protective reaction from the body. You produce 3 main types of tears:
- Basal tears are functional, lubricating tears that help improve your vision and focus and fight against infection. A protein called lysozyme is present in basal tears and protects against viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Basal tears contain oil, mucus, salt, and water—the oil prevents them from evaporating and blinking spreads a layer of basal tears over the eye’s surface.
- Reflex tears are your “eyewash” tears and are triggered by environmental irritants such as dust, smoke, and wind. These tears flush out any irritating material from your eye—and are also the ones that are produced when you cut an onion or vomit.
- Emotional tears flood your eyes in response to strong emotions and are similar to basal tears in chemical makeup but also contain stress hormones and natural pain relievers.
The benefits of crying
Other than keeping your eyes lubricated and irritant-free, crying has intrapersonal and interpersonal functions and offers a number of proven benefits.
Crying helps you self-soothe
Crying has a self-soothing effect which helps you to calm yourself and regulate your emotions, returning you to a more neutral emotional state within a certain period of time. Deep belly breaths from crying or sobbing also activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing—all of which can aid in recovering from stress.
Crying is a natural pain reliever
Emotional tears release oxytocin and endorphins, both of which are natural hormones made in your brain’s hypothalamus. These hormones serve several functions in the body and are known to reduce stress, relieve pain, and enhance your mood. Thus, crying can help improve your overall sense of wellbeing.
Crying elicits care and comfort
Emotional crying is an attachment behavior which signals to others that you need help or support. Most obviously associated with infants and small children, research suggests that crying serves the same functions in adults—facilitating deeper social connections and community support. When adults cry in solitude, it is thought they may be seeking comfort from internalized representations of caregivers, having the self-soothing effect mentioned above.
Crying releases toxins
Emotional tears contain stress hormones and other chemicals, making the act of crying an exocrine process, like exhaling and sweating. As such, crying may be a way the body rids itself of chemicals that are released into the body to help us cope during times of stress, but can have negative impacts when not processed out of the body. (The effects of overexposure to stress hormones include anxiety, depression, weight gain, digestive upset, and heart-associated issues to name a few.)
From a Darwinian perspective, evolution has no use for purposeless bodily processes, adding additional support to the under-researched suggestion that crying may be a factor in bringing the body back into homeostasis after stress.
Crying creates connection
Avoiding or hiding tears is common, but, in doing this, we miss a vital opportunity to connect. If instead we allow people to see us cry, we are showing emotional vulnerability, and allowing others to understand we too are human, just like them. This is a gift.
When we avoid or hide our tears, we miss an opportunity to connect.
Similarly, when we see others cry, we know we are not the only ones facing emotional challenges—and it invites us to open up when we face similar situations. Thus, I encourage you to think of crying as a natural response and an important part of developing emotional agility.
Changing our perspective on crying
I hope that sharing the personal and social benefits of crying lessens the stigma that surrounds this very normal and uniquely human behavior. Our tears indicate we have strong emotions that need to be shared and processed to make room for more positive emotions and a healthier state of being.
About Joseph Stern, MD
Dr. Joseph Stern is a board certified neurosurgeon and the author of Grief Connects Us: A Neurosurgeon’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and Compassion, where he shares his story of unexpected loss and how that impacted his career as a physician. Dr. Stern is dedicated to building a community centered around healing by connecting patients, their families and caregivers, and medical professionals. Join the conversation by signing up for the newsletter or following Dr. Stern’s social media accounts.