For better or worse, human adult tears are a mystery. Some of us cry easily, while others can’t mist up. Contrary to popular belief, though, little is actually known about this common behavior. Still, many of us are quick to form judgements about the attitudes and intentions of those who cry. As a clinical psychiatrist, I’ve grown accustomed to sitting across a desk from a weeping patient, yet I still sometimes struggle with how to respond.
Descriptions of crying have existed for centuries in literature and poetry. Crying for emotional reasons — as opposed to crying as an involuntary behavior — appears unique to Homo sapiens. The British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, famous for his theories of attachment between young children and adults, believed that human babies developed the ability to cry as an evolutionary tool to promote contact between the infant and its caregiver. But why do we cry as adults? The answer is complicated, and the short version suggests numerous reasons, including rage, sadness, empathy and joy.
The modern era of adult tear research has been spearheaded by Ad Vingerhoets, retired professor of psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and a small handful of others, including Lauren Bylsma of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Most studies about crying have been conducted over the past 25 years, with many conclusions only reached in the past 5 to 7 years. Beyond that, Vingerhoets and Bylsma point out that a lot of the long-held theories about the benefits and downsides of adult crying haven’t held up in the laboratory.
It's Not a Form of Catharsis
Popular perception would have us believe that crying is a catharsis, or an emotional exorcism of pent up sadness and rage. The idea that crying could have the benefit of emotional release for an adult was first introduced by Sigmund Freud and his colleague Josef Breuer in the late 19th century. Freud and Breuer wrote that crying in psychotherapy leads the patient to release pent-up feelings — a necessary step on the road to resolving underlying conflicts. During my psychiatry training, supervisors (who were mostly trained in the Freudian tradition) taught me that an emotional patient was a good thing. Today, as I sit across from a weeping patient, I’m torn by surprise, relief that they’re able to express their feelings, and — finally — compassion.
As it turns out, of those reactions, only compassion will make my patient feel better. The crying-as-catharsis theory has remained popular for decades. But Vingerhoets and colleagues have made strides towards debunking it, instead proving that tears facilitate togetherness. An important study of participants across 41 countries consistently found that, regardless of culture or nationality, the act of shedding tears invoked support from others. “If crying made you feel better, then peeling onions would also have a positive effect on mood," says Vingerhoets. "It’s the reception of emotional support that makes you feel better — not the act of crying.”
But before you give up on having a good cry when you’re by yourself, consider that the reality is still quite complicated. In a 2014 study, Vingerhoets and Bylsma found that crying can help someone self-soothe by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the body rest and digest. And short of providing a full-on catharsis, crying by yourself can sometimes have a beneficial effect by forcing you to focus on the problem at hand. That's because “when you’re crying about something, you can’t avoid it anymore,” says Bylsma. “Even if you’re by yourself, find a good, safe, comfortable place to let it out,” she explains, “because actively suppressing emotions can have negative psychological effects.”
Debunking the Myths
But what does research suggest about other theories about crying? Since the 1980s, the idea that crying can rid the blood of toxins and stress hormones has also been popular. Vingerhoets remains skeptical. “There’s this idea — but there’s no absolute proof — that crying might stimulate endorphins and reduce pain,” says Vingerhoets. Despite numerous attempts, Vingerhoets and Bylsma have not been able to confirm these ideas. In one recent study published in the European Journal of Pain, Vingerhoets and colleagues showed participants a sad movie that produced tears, and then exposed them to a pain stimulus. “If anything, we found that crying increased pain perception rather than reducing it,” he said.
By contrast, one aspect of crying that has held up to scrutiny is the biologic sex differential: According to Vingerhoets, “testosterone inhibits crying. If the testosterone levels are reduced, then the person becomes more emotional.” Reports of the frequency of female and male crying have been consistent over the years, with adult women reporting two to five weeping episodes per month, and males reporting zero to one episode per month. Yet even these consistent findings need to be interpreted with caution. Factors such as age, culture and societal norms can all influence the expression of these behaviors.
Crying and Social Stigma
Popular descriptions of crying are not all positive. Shame and stigma can surround crying in adults, which is often associated with weakness and incompetence. Studies by Bylsma, Vingerhoets and their colleagues studies are reversing these stereotypes too. In one study, participants were exposed to pictures of individuals with tears — and then the same pictures with the tears digitally removed. The models with visible tears were judged as kinder, more reliable and more remorseful than the tearless images.
“We have consistently found that people who cry for valid reasons are seen as more empathic and warmer,” says Vingerhoets. Context is key here, as well: It’s important that the crier be seen as having a plausible reason to shed tears. “People can think ‘if it were me, I also would have cried’,” says Vingerhoets.
Professional athletes who cry are also reducing that stigma. “Sports are a mirror of society,” says Alex Krumer, a sports economist at Molde University College in Norway. “And athletes are on the leading edge of this attitude that it’s okay to expose our emotions.” Case in point is tennis star Roger Federer, famous for crying in public; also known for crying are golfer Tiger Woods, football player Tim Tebow and baseball star Wilmer Flores. The list goes on.
So have we solved the riddles of human tears? Not exactly — at least, not yet. But researchers like Bylsma and Vingerhoets are continuing to close in on some of crying’s biggest mysteries.