Crying is a common human action, and it can be triggered by many different emotions. But why do humans cry?
Researchers have found that crying can benefit both your body and your mind, and these benefits begin at birth with a baby’s first cry. Keep reading to learn more about the health benefits of crying.
There are three different types of tears:
- reflex tears
- continuous tears
- emotional tears
Reflex tears clear debris, like smoke and dust, from your eyes. Continuous tears lubricate your eyes and help protect them from infection. Emotional tears may have many health benefits. Whereas continuous tears contain 98 percent water, emotional tears contain stress hormones and other toxins. Researchers have theorized that crying flushes these things out of your system, though more research is needed in this area.
Crying may be one of your best mechanisms to self-soothe. Researchers have found that crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS helps your body rest and digest. The benefits aren’t immediate, however. It may take several minutes of shedding tears before you feel the soothing effects of crying.
Crying for long periods of time releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, otherwise known as endorphins. These feel-good chemicals can help ease both physical and emotional pain. Once the endorphins are released, your body may go into somewhat of a numb stage. Oxytocin can give you a sense of calm or well-being. It’s another example of how crying is a self-soothing action.
Along with helping you ease pain, crying, specifically sobbing, may even lift your spirits. When you sob, you take in many quick breaths of cool air. Breathing in cooler air can help regulate and even lower the temperature of your brain. A cool brain is more pleasurable to your body and mind than a warm brain. As a result, your mood may improve after a sobbing episode.
If you’re feeling blue, crying is a way to let those around you know you are in need of support. This is known as an interpersonal benefit. From the time you were a baby, crying has been an attachment behavior. Its function is in many ways to obtain comfort and care from others. In other words, it helps to build up your social support network when the going gets tough.
Grieving is a process. It involves periods of sorrow, numbness, guilt, and anger. Crying is particularly important during periods of grieving. It may even help you process and accept the loss of a loved one.
Everyone goes through the grieving process in different ways. If you find that your crying is extreme or starting to interfere with your everyday life, it might be a good idea to check in with your doctor.
Crying doesn’t only happen in response to something sad. Sometimes you may cry when you are extremely happy, scared, or stressed. Researchers at Yale University believe crying in this way may help to restore emotional equilibrium. When you’re incredibly happy or scared about something and cry, it may be your body’s way to recover from experiencing such a strong emotion.
A baby’s very first cry out of the womb is a very important cry. Babies receive their oxygen inside the womb through the umbilical cord. Once a baby is delivered, they must start breathing on their own. The first cry is what helps a baby’s lungs adapt to life in the outside world.
Crying also helps babies clear out any extra fluid in the lungs, nose, and mouth.
Crying may also help babies sleep better at night. In a small study on infant sleep, 43 participants used graduated extinction, also known as controlled crying, to put their babies down to bed. With controlled crying, babies were left to cry for a set number of minutes before intervention from their parents. The crying increased both the sleep length and reduced the number of times the infants woke during the night. A year later, the crying did not appear to increase stress in the infants or negatively impact the parent-child bond.
Crying in response to something that makes you happy or sad is normal and healthy. Don’t shy away from shedding tears if you feel the need to release. Excessive crying is something you should chat about with your doctor, however. If crying starts to interfere with your everyday activities, it may be a sign of depression.
Other symptoms of depression include:
- feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- feelings of irritability or frustration
- changes in appetite, or weight loss or gain
- lack of energy
- trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- unexplained aches or pains
- thoughts of death or suicide
If you have thoughts of self-harm, call your local emergency services. If you live in the United States, you can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK.
How much should you cry?
Researchers at Tilburg University put crying under the microscope. Their results? On average, American women cry 3.5 times each month while American men cry around 1.9 times each month. The averages by country vary considerably. The average in America is on the higher end of the spectrum. Women in China, for example, only cry about 1.4 times each month. Men in Bulgaria reportedly cry a mere 0.3 times each month.
It’s OK to cry. It may even be beneficial to you. If you feel the need to cry, don’t hold back your tears. Tears are a normal, healthy way to express emotion.