What is the Definition of Crying?
What are the Benefits of Crying?
Gender Differences in Crying
Can Crying be Pathological?
Crying is a natural response to a wide variety of emotions, ranging from extreme sadness to extreme happiness. Since the ancient era, crying has been regarded as a natural phenomenon that helps release stress and ameliorate mental pain.
What is the definition of crying?
Crying is a physiological phenomenon of releasing tears from the lacrimal gland (an eye gland). It is often associated with changes in facial expression and vocalization. In some cases, crying is accompanied by sobbing, which is short, gasping breathing.
Crying acts at both intra-individual and inter-individual levels. At the intra-individual level, crying is mostly associated with reduction of stress, enhancement of mood, and resolution of the emotional pain of the person who is crying.
At the inter-individual level, a crying person could impact other nearby people. This is a social effect of crying. According to recent scientific theories, visible crying promotes empathy and social bonding by inducing compassionate, supportive, and protective responses in other people.
Any type of strong emotion, including sadness, anger, or joy, can induce tears. Emotional tears contain higher levels of stress hormones and natural pain-relieving substances than basal tears. A basal tear is the basic form of tear that contains water, salt, oil, and mucus, and helps keep the eyes moist, lubricated, and protected from environmental pollutants and pathogens.
What are the benefits of crying?
Mood-enhancing and self-soothing effects of crying have been known for decades. There is scientific evidence suggesting that crying improves mood via physiological, cognitive, and behavioral mechanisms.
Parasympathetic nervous system
At the physiological level, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system has been observed during the resolution of crying. This process might play a role in reducing distress and inducing positive emotion in a crying person. In physiological conditions, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is associated with rest, recovery, and relaxation processes.
Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is also crucial for the production of tears in the lacrimal gland.
During crying, tears help clear and detoxify the blood by removing toxins and stress hormones, such as cortisol. In this context, studies have shown that intensive crying causes a reduction in salivary cortisol levels in women.
Crying is known to increase the tolerance level of pain. This effect might be associated with the crying-induced release of opioids, which are endogenous substances that act via opioid receptors to relieve physical and emotional pain.
Crying is known to increase the secretion of oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps us to cope with stressful events. During socially stressful events, oxytocin reduces the activity of the amygdala to increase calmness and overall wellbeing and decrease stress and anxiety.
Human tears contain nerve-growth factor, which is a protein found in the lacrimal gland. Nerve-growth factor, which is crucial for the growth and survival of neurons and the development of neural plasticity, is believed to play a role in enhancing mood during crying.
It has been postulated that nerve-growth factor-containing emotional tears flow through the nasal cavity back into the body, and nerve-growth factor in the tears bypasses the blood-brain barrier to enter the brain via olfactory and trigeminal nerves. Preclinical and clinical studies have shown that the nerve-growth factor acts as a modulator of depression.
Cerebral blood supply
Negative emotions are known to change cerebral blood circulation, leading to changes in cerebral temperature and dampened mood. In contrast, certain facial muscle activity during crying is known to help restore the cerebral blood supply, leading to effective cerebral thermoregulation and mood enhancement.
Gender differences in crying
The propensity of crying differs significantly between men and women. According to the available literature, a woman cries on average 5 times a month, whereas a man cries only once a month.
Biologically, the levels of specific hormones such as testosterone and prolactin might play a role in reducing and inducing crying in men and women, respectively. However, society-imposed masculine stereotype plays a major role in controlling crying in men. A study conducted on residents of 35 countries has found significantly fewer gender differences in crying in countries with higher freedom of expression and social resources.
Holding back negative emotions and tears is not healthy behavior. Such behavior is termed repressive coping, and studies have found that repressive coping can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, and mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, and stress.
Men who believe in masculine stereotypes often try to hold back their emotional expressions, including tears, deep inside. This may result in negative health outcomes, alcohol or drug addition, as well as suicidal tendencies.
Can crying be pathological?
Crying is a natural behavior that occurs in response to a range of emotions. However, too much crying, very frequent crying, or crying without any reason could be problematic. These types of crying may not always be associated with emotional feelings.
Certain medical conditions, including motor neuron disease, traumatic brain injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease, may induce uncontrollable tears. Such involuntary crying could significantly affect daily life activities and cause social isolation.
Inability to cry is another medical condition that may arise from clinical depression. People with Sjögren's syndrome may also experience great difficulty in producing tears.
In medical science, both excessive crying and lack of crying are considered pathological and need proper medical attention.
- Gracanin., A. (2014). Is crying a self-soothing behavior? Frontiers in Psychology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4035568/
- Bylsma., L.M. (2019) The neurobiology of human crying. Clinical Autonomic Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6201288/
- Newhouse., L. (2021). Is crying good for you? Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/is-crying-good-for-you-2021030122020
- Collier., L. (2014). Why we cry? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/02/cry
- Finegan., E. (2019). Pathological Crying and Laughing in Motor Neuron Disease: Pathobiology, Screening, Intervention. Frontiers in Neurology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fneur.2019.00260/full
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Last Updated: Jul 27, 2022
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta is a science communicator who believes in spreading the power of science in every corner of the world. She has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree and a Master's of Science (M.Sc.) in biology and human physiology. Following her Master's degree, Sanchari went on to study a Ph.D. in human physiology. She has authored more than 10 original research articles, all of which have been published in world renowned international journals.
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