Maybe you’ve just walked your daughter down the aisle at her wedding…or you’ve had a particularly rough week at work…or recently had a heated argument with your spouse.
Any of these scenarios might cause you to soak a few tissues. The average American woman cries four or five times a month…and the average man at least once. But crying can do a lot more for you than just express emotion.
When you cry, complex reactions involving your brain and nervous system occur, providing a variety of benefits. A good cry can…
• Boost mood. In my research published in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the majority of participants reported an improvement in their mental and physical state after crying. Possible reasons why: Crying is self-soothing—it helps the individual acknowledge deep feelings and highlight what’s important to him/her.
If you cry over a fight you had with your sister, for example, you’re likely to feel better afterward because you may have worked through your emotions and gained a better understanding of the situation and what to do about it. Or if you cry over disappointment in yourself, such as feeling you haven’t saved enough money for retirement, you’re likely to feel better because you’ve recognized the problem and expressed a wish to change. And crying over a cancer diagnosis or from grief due to the loss of a loved one can help one process the overwhelming emotions.
It’s no surprise that criers in the study who had support from others were more likely to report mood benefits than those who cried in front of people who were not supportive.
Also: The act of crying stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. Crying also releases oxytocin, a calming hormone, as well as endorphins, “feel-good” hormones.
• Relieve stress. Stress has long been associated with many negative health consequences, and a good cry helps relieve it. Most people feel especially agitated when they first start crying, but once the tears flow, their heartbeat slows down and stress eases, as mentioned above. Some researchers also believe that the tears produced by crying help remove harmful substances from the body—namely the stress hormone cortisol and the mineral manganese (elevated levels of manganese are associated with anxiety and irritability)—but more research is needed on this.
• Promote strong connections. Crying is a way to signal that you have a problem and need support from those around you. It’s one of the first things we do as infants, but this phenomenon has a similar bonding effect in adults, too. Crying also can enhance communication. It can emphasize a feeling or point not expressed in words.
• Alleviate pain. The hormones produced during crying that provide emotional well-being also can help reduce physical pain. So if you’re in pain and want to cry, let loose.
Experts agree that suppressing strong emotions may actually be harmful to your physical and mental health. Crying helps people work through and release pent-up emotion and to start again with a blank slate.
Important: If crying happens very frequently, occurs for no apparent reason, starts to affect your daily life or becomes uncontrollable, be sure to see your doctor. These symptoms could indicate depression.
Other Ways Tears Protect Health
Beyond emotional tears, there are two other types of tears that protect your health. Basal tears are in your eyes all the time. Every time you blink, basal tears wash across the surface of your eyes, keeping your eyes nourished and protected. The lubricating effect helps you see more clearly—when the eyes become dry, vision can blur. And reflex tears form to clear out foreign matter—a speck of dust, an eyelash, even onion fumes. Also worth noting: Tears contain an enzyme called lysozyme that can help kill bacteria and other pathogens that could enter your body through your eyes.
Exciting development: Scientists have found biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s in tears, which may lead to much earlier diagnosis and treatment.