It’s not a blockbuster drug. It’s free, available to all, and has no known side-effects other than wet tissues, red eyes and runny make-up. But most people who cry says it makes them feel better, reduces stress, helps them cope. So beneficial is it that some researchers suggest there may be a case for inducing crying in those who find it difficult to let go.
Psychiatrists and counsellors, who spend much of their professional lives listening to people in tears, have long been aware of the cathartic value of crying. The American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger (of the famous family of psychiatrists that founded the Menninger clinic), wrote that “Weeping is perhaps the most human and most universal of all relief measures.”
What is most striking is that, despite the importance of crying as a powerful human emotional expression, it has won pitifully scant attention from scientists until recent times.
Even today, the answer to how crying brings about its healing effects still eludes us. We have theories and we have some intriguing research leads, but no rock-solid proof – as yet. Even the brain mechanisms that underlie crying remain pretty much a mystery.
All tears are not equal
What we do know is that there are tears, and then there are tears. Three types have been identified. They have different chemical compositions, and only one type brings in emotionally beneficial effects.
The first type of tears is the kind that is secreted continuously in small amounts by the tear ducts. These tears (called “basal” tears) lubricate our eyes, keeping them moist and protected.
Then there are the “reflex tears” that occur as a reaction to irritants or foreign objects. These are the tears that spring to your eyes when, say, a speck of dust lands on the conjunctiva (the white of the eyes), or when you’re chopping onions.
The third kind of tears are “emotional” tears, the tears that flow in response to our emotions or mood. Although crying has been documented in apes, elephants and even camels, these are believed to be basal tears or reflex tears; it seems that only humans produce emotional tears.
Scientists overwhelmingly concur that, for emotional tears to have evolved in humans, they must have conferred some kind of survival advantage. Since the earliest humans were probably nocturnal forest dwellers, crying may have favoured survival of infants by helping parents find them quickly at night, in caves, and in holes. After all, babies are fairly limited in how they can express themselves. It seems likely that crying, together with vocalization, greatly increased the survival chances of those early infants who had acquired this capacity through random genetic mutation. As a result of the advantage it conferred, crying then became lodged in our genome, and tears became a signal, and a symbol, of suffering. This is the theory that enjoys the widest currency today – the notion that tears are a form of social signalling that evolved from mammalian distress calls.
Is crying always cathartic?
Emotional tears contain higher levels (than the other two types of tears) of enkephalin, a brain chemical that is a natural painkiller, with properties similar to those of narcotic drugs. It is released when the body is under stress, and this may explain the cathartic effect of “a good cry". Tears are widely considered a release, a psychological tonic.
But recent – and, as yet, exploratory -- research is suggesting that the conventional wisdom about crying as healthy catharsis is incomplete and over-stated. So, while having a “good cry” can, and usually does, allow people to recover some mental balance and equanimity, this does not happen always and not for everyone, today’s scientists say.
This nuanced view of crying stems partly from a critique of earlier research. Most of this previous research had asked people to reflect back on times they had cried in the past. This kind of post-dated query had elicited the response that crying had helped them to feel better, to absorb a blow such as the loss of someone close. At least, that’s how they remembered it. And therein lies the rub, say today’s scientists. When people think back in time, their memories tend to get distorted and contaminated by what they believe that crying should do. Just as people selectively remember the best part of their vacations and forget the headaches, so too crying appears to have been uniformly cathartic in retrospect. Memory glazes over the times when tears brought shame or embarrassment rather than relief, or when they actually caused our mood to sink a little lower.
Today’s research approach is somewhat different: study participants are asked to keep daily diaries and to record how they felt immediately after an episode of crying. When this kind of immediacy and exactitude is maintained, the findings are quite different. Typically, about 60 per cent of those keeping a daily diary have said that their mood improved after crying, with 30 per cent reporting “no change”, and the remaining 10 per cent saying their mood worsened.
Other research has provided additional nuances. Whether crying helps one feel better or makes one feel worse, these studies suggest, depends on several factors; importantly, it depends on whether one has cried alone or in the presence of others. Among the findings:
» Crying with just one other person present is significantly more likely to produce a cathartic effect than crying in front of two or more people.
» Crying is also more likely to make a person feel better if the crying has led to a resolution or a new understanding of the situation that caused them to cry in the first place.
» Criers felt worse if they were in the presence of unsupportive people or if they cried because they had witnessed suffering.
All this seems to buttress the view that the most obvious social function of crying is to rally empathy and support, and it therefore comes as no surprise that how people feel when they cry depends partly on who is around and what they do. Tears are literally a cry for help, and help is generally given. It’s the positive social support that often generates a mood benefit.
Why do women cry more than men?
Gender differences in crying have been explored for decades and across the world, and all of the studies have reached the same conclusion: Women cry more than men do – about 3 to 4 times more. And their crying tends to be more intense.
One reason is likely biological: women’s tears contain more of the hormone, prolactin, than men’s tears. Post-puberty, women produce about 60 per cent more prolactin than men. (This is the hormone that also stimulates breast milk production after childbirth). Women’s higher levels of prolactin, it is hypothesized, may explain why they cry more than men do; but this theory awaits confirmatory research.
Another likely reason for the gender difference is upbringing and cultural norms. For centuries, little boys have been told they should not be “cry babies”, that they should “be a man, don’t cry like a girl”. In patriarchy-driven societies, that’s a powerful message. To this extent, then, the emotional inhibition of men is what social scientists call “learned behaviour”.
However, while the average woman will always have more crying episodes than the average man, male tears are becoming increasingly acceptable. Different influences have lent their weight to the changing norms. One, of course, was the coming along of the ‘90s man – sensitive, caring, unafraid to show his feelings, unafraid even to cry. So crying, which had earlier been associated with weak, “effeminate” men, started getting linked to strong, powerful men. Among those who have unabashedly shed tears in public view in recent times are Narendra Modi, Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Jamie Oliver, Justin Trudeau, and yes, even Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s “rocket man”, Kim Jong-un.
One theory is that a driving force behind the change has been powerful and emotional events such as 9/11, and other acts of savage terrorism. This seems to be supported by the fact that, in studies, men are rated more highly when they cry from sadness than from anger.
Well, the incidence of male politicians crying in the public arena is likely to increase, not decline, going ahead. But as they continue to make it less and less, er, “politically incorrect” to cry in public, they are also contributing, in their own small if unintended way, to making it more and more acceptable for a man – any man -- to cry in private.
What if you can't cry?
Bucking the trend, Donald Trump bragged earlier this year that he hasn’t cried since he was a baby. But is that a strength or is it an emotional emptiness? Those who are unable to cry should look more closely to see if they are unconsciously blocking the flow of tears. Experts agree that it is unwise to make a habit of holding back tears. The fact is, most people would do better to let go and have a good cry periodically.
The inability to cry is seen at its extreme among trauma victims – e.g., survivors of incest, rape or torture. A child who has been subjected to habitual physical abuse, for instance, copes by “learning” how to take the beatings and not cry. By extension, then, such a child will also learn how to lose something – or someone – he loves and not cry.
Some non-criers – men as well as women – are indeed able to face up to what this damming of the tears really means: the fear of increased vulnerability. They are scared that, if they allow all their feelings about an experience or event to surface, they will be engulfed by such a maelstrom of emotions that they will not be able to cope with it – they may “break”. So, they just will not give themselves permission to cry.
But, to bring deeply-repressed feelings and memories – gradually and gently – into the open, to work through the pain, anger and other negative emotions associated with the traumatic experiences, that is a good part of what goes on in the catharsis work of counselling. It takes time and patience and hard work on the part of both, therapist and client. And an acceptance that there will be pain even in working through the pain. As someone has said: “The truth will set you free, but first it will knock the wind out of you.”
That’s why it’s a well-meaning but bad idea to try to help someone who’s crying by telling them, “Don’t cry”. If you stay with them while they cry, simply being there with compassion and caring, you’ll often see the release and sometimes the almost-palpable relief when the crying stops – of its own accord.
Do you cry too much?
A word of caution, however, to those who cry every time they’re criticized, have a fight with a friend or experience normal work frustrations. If you find you’re crying a lot in response to criticism, it is advisable to get professional help. That kind of crying is an alarm bell that warns of some deep hurt or loss of self-esteem that is triggered whenever anyone says anything negative.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)