Crying can be a sign of joy, sadness, or frustration. Crying in public isn’t generally considered socially acceptable, and may be interpreted as a weakness. But are there any benefits from it? Well, maybe.
Who cries, and when?
Crying in response to pain is common until adolescence, but adults don’t usually cry for that reason. Older adults become more likely to cry in positive situations, particularly situations that are quite meaningful to them.
One study found that people in wealthier countries tended to cry more than people in poorer countries. The researchers speculated that emotional expression may be considered culturally unacceptable in poorer countries. Perhaps crying is seen as an indulgence.
Gender makes a difference. Females cry more often and more intensely than men; there’s undoubtedly a strong cultural element to that, but it may also be partly hormonal, with testosterone inhibiting crying. Females are more likely to cry in conflict situations, which may be culturally related to feelings of powerlessness and helplessness, which are the most likely kinds of emotions to precipitate crying. I’ve done this and I hate it. I’m not generally anti-cry, but in situations where you want to come across as strong, bursting into tears doesn’t exactly help with that.
Personality also has an impact. People who have high levels of the personality trait neuroticism (a tendency to experience more negative emotions) tend to cry more than people with low levels of the trait.
What effect does crying have?
While people often report feeling that crying is beneficial, research has had mixed results. It’s been speculated that crying may trigger the release of oxytocin or endogenous opioids, which could promote more positive feelings, but that hasn’t been clearly established yet.
Circumstances can influence how a cry session will affect us. People are more likely to feel that crying has been beneficial if they receive social support from one person as a result. However, the effect is more likely to be the opposite if there are two or more people present. Crying is also more likely to be judged as beneficial if the issue that prompted it somehow gets resolved.
People with secure attachment styles are likely to feel more comfortable crying than people with insecure attachments, who may be activated to cry easily but hard to soothe once they get going.
While gender and neuroticism are both associated with crying more, they don’t seem to influence the likelihood of experiencing positive effects from it. Another personality trait, alexithymia (which involves difficulty identifying feelings) is associated with crying less and being less likely to find it to be beneficial. People with high levels of alexithymia may even experience a worsening of mood post-cry.
Several studies have shown that people with depressive and anxiety disorders are less likely to report benefits from crying. People who experience shame in relation to crying are also less likely to experience beneficial effects from it, which isn’t surprising.
Oddly enough, the smell of female emotional tears seems to be a turn-off to men. This isn’t just a one-off finding; after one study arrived at this conclusion, another group of researchers was able to replicate the results.
What’s your experience?
I think there have definitely been times when having a full-on ugly cry has been a cathartic experience for me. Tears in social experiences where I really didn’t want them weren’t helpful. Tears in power imbalance situations suck big-time. Recently, the times I’ve cried have tended to be a slow seepage of tears, which doesn’t seem to have much of an emotional impact either way.
How do you tend to react post-cry?
- Collier, L. (2014). Why we cry. American Pyschological Association Monitor on Pyschology.
- Rottenberg, J., Bylsma, L. M., & Vingerhoets, A. J. (2008). Is crying beneficial? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(6), 400-404.
- Vingerhoets, A. J., & Bylsma, L. M. (2016). The riddle of human emotional crying: A challenge for emotion researchers. Emotion Review, 8(3), 207-217.