New research sheds light on the value of shedding tears for your well-being.
After a difficult day, sometimes you can’t wait to get home, grab a Kleenex box, and let all your emotions pour out along with your tears. With those few minutes of sobbing behind you comes a tremendous sense of relief. You can regain your composure, get up, and then head to the kitchen to focus on getting dinner on the table.
Although the tears generally seemed to improve your mood, perhaps there have been other times when you actually felt worse after the sobs have subsided. The problem that caused you to cry didn’t go away, and now you feel that you only made things worse by letting down your emotional defenses.
Theories about the value of crying debate whether it’s helpful or harmful to your emotional equanimity. From retrospective studies, where people recall whether they were helped or not by crying, the results are not all that clear.
According to University of Queensland psychologist Lear Sharman and colleagues (2019), after a crying episode subsides, about 70% of people recall that crying was good for them, most often as a feeling of relief or catharsis. However, this percentage goes down considerably when people are asked to think only about the last time they cried (51%) or, for women, on the day that they cried (30%). The jury is out, then, on whether crying helps or not.
As background for their own experimental study, Sharman and her coworkers reviewed so-called “crying theories.” The preponderance of views regards crying as “being part of a recovery process, with a ‘release” or ‘overflow’ function.” Some previous theorists believe that tears “detoxify” the body, that they are accompanied by “endogenous opioids,” and that “crying could serve to sedate, reduce pain, restore the homeostatic balance, and even assist in coping with stressors.” Crying could, furthermore, serve a protective function to “numb negative affect and physical pain” and assist with recovery, helping to explain why you cry to self-soothe when you are alone (pp. 2-3).
Sharman et al. point out that previous lab studies may have produced unclear findings because the investigators have not followed participants for longer than a few minutes following the crying episode. Furthermore, it’s not all that easy to elicit tears in the lab, as in some of these studies only 22% of participants could be induced to cry. More importantly, previous researchers have failed to introduce sufficient controls that include a neutral condition that does not induce crying.
To overcome these previous limitations, Sharman et al. randomly exposed their 197 female undergraduate participants (ages 17 to 50 with an average age of 20) to sad vs. neutral videos. However, because some people cry more easily than others, and in response to different stimuli, participants in the cry-eliciting condition were grouped into “sad-criers” or “sad-noncriers.” The tear-inducing stimulus consisted of a video showing sad advertisements, animated film scenes, and true stories. The neutral video consisted of documentary films, Ted talks, and true stories.
In the Sharman et al. experiment, participants were strapped to heart rate monitors and measures of respiration rate, tested for salivary cortisol before and following the video, and tested on measures of positive and negative mood. A “Crying Proneness Scale” allowed the researchers to categorize the subgroups of criers into sad vs. sad non-criers.
To determine whether participants cried or not, observers rated whether they saw tears, but the researchers also asked participants to self-report whether they actually had cried. Counts of observable crying were made every 10 seconds, and physiological measures were taken at 20, 35, and 45 minutes after the baseline.
The final component of the study involved a stress test in which participants put their hands in an ice bucket, a measure known as the cold pressor test (CPT). If crying protects against stress, then those who cried should be able to keep their hands on ice longer than the non-criers.
As the authors predicted, the neutral condition provoked no changes in negative affect during or immediately after watching the videos. The non-criers peaked in negative affect during the video as did the criers, and both groups returned to the same baseline affect at the end of the study. Cortisol levels dropped over the study for all participants, but those who were in the non-cry group showed a slight peak right after watching the video. The criers indeed showed a peak in heart rate during the sad videos, and their breathing slowed, as it did for all participants. However, compared to participants who did not cry, those who did seemed better at regulating their breathing while they cried in the videos. article continues after advertisement
When it came to coping with the CPT, those who cried were no better able to withstand the stress test. Thus, the authors concluded that crying would not provide any particular advantage “in circumstances where you may require aid and, in particular, circumstances of physical injury” (p. 9).
The findings, then, do not support the view that sad crying helps to sedate people from pain. Even so, the breathing rate results suggest that crying may help to provide internal signals that help people manage distress and perhaps lead the crier to seek out social support or assistance.
There may be no direct support for crying’s ability to promote biochemical changes, then, although it may help you to take steps to reduce your sadness. However, the advantages of an experimental study as represented by the Sharman et al. work also came at a potential cost in terms of demonstrating crying’s impact on people’s emotional state. Crying in response to a video, no matter how depressing the scenes in it may be, isn’t the same as crying in response to an actual sad situation in your life.
To sum up, the next time you feel a flood of tears about to release themselves, there’s no reason to withhold them from flowing down your cheeks. They can become helpful adaptive signals that allow you to regulate your mood back to normal. Just as important, given crying’s potential social function, you can use this evidence of your sad mood, most importantly, to seek the support from the people who care about you and your well-being.