It seems to me that if you suffer from a physiological response to emotion or outside stimuli on a somewhat regular basis, the next logical step to take is to analyze why you are reacting this way. Here is what I have learned about the human reaction of emotional crying.
Crying is the shedding of tears in response to an emotional state. It all starts in the cerebrum where sadness is registered. The endocrine system is then triggered to release hormones to the ocular area, which then causes tears to form.
The phrase “having a good cry” suggests that crying can actually make you feel physically and emotionally better, which many people believe. Some scientists agree with this theory, asserting that chemicals build up in the body during times of elevated stress. These researchers believe that emotional crying is the body’s way of ridding itself of these toxins and waste products. Research suggests that emotion-induced crying is therefore, at least in part, an excretory process which removes stress-related toxins.
Biochemist William Frey has spent 15 years as head of a research team studying tears. The team found that, although tear production organs were once thought to be vestigial (left over from evolution) and no longer necessary for survival, tears actually have numerous critical functions. For example, the simple act of crying reduces the body’s manganese level, a mineral which affects mood and is found in up to 30 times greater concentration in tears than in blood serum. They also found that emotional tears contain 24 per cent higher albumin protein concentration than tears caused by eye irritants
“As an adult, you cry much less than when young, and your crying is more often subdued, teary weeping than the demonstrative, vocal sobbing of childhood. . . [T]he trauma that causes your crying is now more often emotional than physical. However, whether intentional or not, as adult or child, you cry to solicit assistance, whether physical aid or emotional solace. Paradoxically, your adult cry for help is more private than the noisy, promiscuous pronouncement of childhood, often occurring at home, where it finds a select audience. The developmental shift from vocal crying to visual tearing favors the face-to-face encounters of an intimate setting. The maturation of inhibitory control gives adults the ability to select where and when crying occurs, or to inhibit it altogether, options less available to children.” – Robert R. Provine
Physiologically speaking, emotional tears are elicited when a person’s system shifts rapidly from sympathetic to parasympathetic activity—from a state of high tension to a period of recalibration and recovery. Depending on the circumstances, individuals typically describe such shifts as “letting go,” “going off duty,” or “giving up.” Of course, nothing is literally “released” when these biophysical changes occur, although the person’s adrenaline level drops and the body relaxes.
While there is good evidence that crying makes people feel better, there is little evidence showing any cathartic effect of crying, if by that is meant some sort of peaceful relief from tension or another emotion. No cathartic effect of crying has been observed when people are asked to cry as opposed to suppressing their tears while watching sad events.
If crying is not physiologically beneficial, what then is the purpose of emotionally aroused tears? Is it entirely psychological? Recurrent sociological interpretations emphasize the communicative value of crying. Crying, like a shout or a sneeze, attracts the immediate attention of others. Tears provoke an emotional response in the observer which, in the more skeptical views, not only elicits sympathy but acts as a manipulative tool.
Other ideas about crying fluctuate between the sociological and the biological. Darwin noted that the main expressive movements during crying (and other actions such as laughing or blowing the nose) lead to a rise of pressure in the chest and abdomen, which leads to increased blood pressure in the eyes. In order to prevent damage to the eyes, the muscles around them contract. Darwin considered that this protective contraction “was a fundamental element in several of our most important expressions.”
A British pamphlet from 1755, Man: A Paper for Ennobling the Species, proposed a number of ideas for human improvement, and among them was the idea that something called “moral weeping” would help:
We may properly distinguish weeping into two general kinds, genuine and counterfeit; or into physical crying and moral weeping. Physical crying, while there are no real corresponding ideas in the mind, nor any genuine sentimental feeling of the heart to produce it, depends upon the mechanism of the body: but moral weeping proceeds from, and is always attended with, such real sentiments of the mind, and feeling of the heart, as do honour to human nature; which false crying always debases.
In this text and throughout human history, some tears have been considered good, and some, like those that are not “genuine,” have been held in contempt. Some tears do honor to human nature, some debase it. This distinction is one of the perennial strands of the cultural history of crying, found in ancient fables, medieval monastic treatises, court culture, and our own films and sitcoms. But while it is fair to say that the “good cry” and the debased cry have always been with us and always will be, what constitutes a good cry changes over time. If a young woman were to fall on the ground weeping in a restaurant, say, and wash her father’s feet with her tears while begging for his forgiveness, few people would find it as appropriate or heartwarming a sight as a group at an eighteenth-century British inn might have, or as eighteenth-century novel readers clearly did. And the same is true for the other judgments we make about tears, as when we deem them to be normal or excessive, sincere or manipulative, expressive or histrionic.
New analysis by Dr. Oren Hasson of TAU’s Department of Zoology shows that tears still signal physiological distress, but they also function as an evolution-based mechanism to bring people closer together.”Crying is a highly evolved behavior,” explains Dr. Hasson. “Tears give clues and reliable information about submission, needs and social attachments between one another. My research is trying to answer what the evolutionary reasons are for having emotional tears. My analysis suggests that by blurring vision, tears lower defences and reliably function as signals of submission, a cry for help, and even in a mutual display of attachment and as a group display of cohesion,” he reports. His research, published recently in Evolutionary Psychology, investigates the different kinds of tears we shed — tears of joy, sadness and grief — as well as the authenticity or sincerity of the tears. Crying, Dr. Hasson says, has unique benefits among friends and others in our various communities.
Approaching the topic with the deductive tools of an evolutionary biologist, Dr. Hasson investigated the use of tears in various emotional and social circumstances. Tears are used to elicit mercy from an antagonistic enemy, he claims. They are also useful in eliciting the sympathy — and perhaps more importantly the strategic assistance — of people who were not part of the enemy group.”This is strictly human,” reasons Dr. Hasson. “Emotional tears also signal appeasement, a need for attachment in times of grief, and a validation of emotions among family, friends and members of a group.” Crying enhances attachments and friendships, says Dr. Hasson, but taboos are still there in certain cases. In some cultures, societies or circumstances, the expression of emotions is received as a weakness and the production of tears is suppressed. For example, it is rarely acceptable to cry in front of your boss at work — especially if you are a man, he says.
Multiple studies across cultures show that crying helps us bond with our families, loved ones and allies, Dr. Hasson says. By blurring vision, tears reliably signal your vulnerability and that you love someone, a good evolutionary strategy to emotionally bind people closer to you. “Of course,” Dr. Hasson adds, “the efficacy of this evolutionary behavior always depends on who you’re with when you cry those buckets of tears, and it probably won’t be effective in places, like at work, when emotions should be hidden.” Dr. Hasson, a marriage therapist, uses his conclusions in his clinic. “It is important to legitimize emotional tears in relationships,” he says. “Too often, women who cry feel ashamed, silly or weak, when in reality they are simply connected with their feelings, and want sympathy and hugs from their partners.”
In one study of personality and crying, the circumstances of crying in the previous year were rated, and personality questionnaires filled out by 70 male and 70 female volunteers. The death of a friend and breaking up rated highest in terms of occasions. Women cried more frequently and intensely than men, and in both sexes crying positively correlated with personality variables related to empathy.
It’s true that women are more prone to crying than men, at least after they reach puberty. Women have more of the prolactin hormone, which contributes to tears and how much people cry. There also is a difference in the shape of men’s and women’s tear ducts, although it’s unclear whether this is a cause of more crying in women. Another reason women cry more could be that women get depressed more than men, and people cry more when they are depressed. Social mores also permit women to cry, whereas crying is considered unacceptable behavior for men.
Women seem to worry more than men, and it could be that they’re also more prone to feeling stressed. In women, the part of the brain that deals with stress is linked to the area that controls hormones and digestion, which is not the case in men. That means that women tend to exhibit more physical symptoms from stress than men. Women also have more stress hormones than men. After a traumatic experience, a woman’s stress hormone levels take longer to get back to normal levels than do a man’s. Could it be that some of these physiological effects come across as emotional ones?
A purely human act, it seems that with extensive research that crying is essential to the way we relate with our emotions and each other. With the most modern studies proclaiming tears and emotional crying as a purely positive way to shed stress, toxins and built up chemicals there remains one intangible but very real challenge.
It’s just so damn sad.
William Frey, Crying: The Mystery of Tears
Benedict Carey, The Miracle Of Tears
Michael Trimble, Why Humans Like To Cry
Dr. Oren Hasson, Tel Aviv University