“The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep.” — Henry Maudsley, British psychiatrist
MORE THAN FOR ANY OTHER REASON, I cry — even sob — at tales or images of rescuers: sometimes I have only to see a fire truck, and don’t get me going on working firemen. I worry about crying too easily and so was reassured to see the steel-encased tissue box at the Newseum’s 9/11 exhibit. There I was not alone.
Besides emotional tears, there are basal tears that clean and lubricate the eyes, and reflex tears caused by irritants like the compounds in onions or pollen. Tears start at the lacrimal glands, located on the upper eyes; and most tears flow over the surface of the eyes and drain out through the tear ducts, which lead into the nasal cavity – the reason copious tears can cause a runny nose.
Emotional tears may have evolved to protect us from predators, because they make it harder to tell where we are gazing, according to evolutionary biologist Oren Hasson. Or they could show others we are vulnerable and would prefer to make peace, signaling our willingness to trust and join a supportive community.
Whether or not animals cry to express emotions is debated. Elephants appear to cry when family members die, and chimpanzees have also shed tears – though some insist that animal tears are released only to cleanse the eyes.
Crying has been shown to have real benefits: it relieves stress — which over time can damage the heart and brain – and tears can remove chemicals that build up during stress; it can lower blood pressure, and it reduces manganese, a mineral found in the highest concentrations in tears, according to William Frey, a Minnesota neuroscientist who spent some 15 years studying crying and tears. Because manganese affects mood, there is some thought that shedding manganese helps you feel better. Frey also found that more tears are shed between 7 and 10 p.m.; and the average length of crying bouts is six minutes.
Crying habits in the population as a whole are on a spectrum, probably related to temperament: those who feel more comfortable crying are usually more extroverted and empathetic. Women feel less sad and angry after crying than men. And on average, women cry 47 times a year while men cry only 7 times, according to Frey’s research.
Women who say they feel more comfortable crying are those who report anxiety, according to psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg and colleagues at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who analyzed over 3000 reports of sobbing.
Criers are helped more if they are comforted by others, but responding to crying can be difficult. Many people feel uncomfortable around criers, because they exhibit vulnerability, and that shifts “the level of intimacy of the environment,” California psychologist Stephen Sideroff told WebMD. “Just being in that more intimate environment makes the other person uncomfortable in some cases.”
Doing nothing can make the crier feel worse: even in a large group, criers welcome support from those they don’t know well. But Sideroff cautioned: “the less intimate the relationship, the more it is appropriate to begin by asking how you can help,”
Studying crying, the Tampa researchers found that lab-induced crying is different: those who cried at a sad movie clip reported feeling worse afterwards than those who did not. Others who feel worse after crying are those who score higher on measures of depression, as well as those who try to suppress their crying or feel shame as they cry.
As Dr. Maudsley famously noted above, there are perils of not crying: suppressing tears can make us deaden ourselves, “to suppress or not even notice we have those feelings inside,” said Sideroff. “When you cry it’s a signal you need to address something,” according to Tampa neuropsychologist Jodi DeLuca. Crying can prevent new hurts from getting buried or release old ones – as in “getting it out of your system.”
Some people cry in response to beauty, to good news, to seeing loved ones – maybe because crying calms us, it may help regulate “overwhelming positive emotions,” Yale psychologist Oriana Aragon told Scientific American. Feeling “too positive” can interfere with decision making and cause people to act impulsively.
For those who don’t cry easily, there are endless Youtube entries under “crying.” Or there’s Adweek’s entreaty to “Watch the Thai Commercial that has Half the World Sobbing uncontrollably.” I didn’t go there.