Why Do We Cry?

Crying is a strange thing. We can’t completely explain what it is or what it’s for. Darwin declared tears “purposeless” roughly 150 years ago, nonetheless, we do it all time. Is something this frequent really “purposeless”? The first thing we do when we enter this world is cry. Kids then do it openly and without […]

Why Do We Cry? A figure examines a tear with a magnifying glass.

The first thing we do when we enter this world is cry. Kids then do it openly and without shame, but as grownups we begin to hide it. Men often feel that it isn’t accepted for them to cry, whereas women are accused of being over-emotional. Where does this come from? Why do we cry at all and how much is too much?

The cathartic function – “I feel better now”

You probably know how healing it can feel to “let it all out”? Well, that’s true even on a chemical level.

Emotional tears are different from reflex tears (which nourish and protect your eyeball). They have higher concentrations of stress hormones, contain a natural painkiller, and stimulate the production of endorphins – hormones that play their part in making us feel happy and content. Thus, emotional tears might serve as an “emotional pain reliever”. This is called the cathartic function of crying.

One study found that up to 85% of women and 73% of men reported feeling better after crying. There’s an emotional healing effect to crying that can help us overcome our sorrow, gain something positive in the process and move on.

The social function – “Lean on me”

Maybe you know how meaningful it can feel to comfort someone who is crying, or to be comforted when you are sad? Strangely enough, the consistency of emotional tears makes them “stickier” than other types of tears. Thus, they run down our cheeks slower. Some scientists see this as further evidence that emotional tears have a social function.

Crying can be a way to communicate to those around us that we are in need of comfort, support, and intimacy. Those in the ‘comforter role’ feel empathy, compassion and possibly thankfulness for being entrusted with something so personal. Revealing our vulnerability to others can strengthen our relationships and help us overcome difficult times with the help of others.

Emotional balance – “Good times, bad times”

Additionally to the cathartic function and the social function of crying, a third theory proposes crying as a vital part of a balanced emotional life. In more complex words: a way of maintaining emotional homeostasis, or emotional balance. This means that crying, just like laughing, is a part of being human and staying mentally healthy. According to this theory, feelings of shame or guilt, which hinder this process of relief, are unnecessary or even counterproductive. Simply put: If we feel the need to cry, we have every right to and maybe we should.

After all, our emotions are short-lived sensations. We are neither made for constant happiness, nor constant sadness. The saying “what goes up must come down” fits perfectly.

Sadness can’t be measured in ounces

Some people really wish they could cry more in specific moments, but the tears don’t come. Others tear up quickly and more often, even when they’re not that sad. It can be frustrating when what we are feeling is not in line with what we can express.

But beating ourselves up about something we can’t control is not going to help. No matter if you cry often or very seldomly, your tears are yours. And besides, sadness is experienced from the inside. No one can measure its intensity from the outside – and no one should try to, not even you yourself.

Men don’t cry?

Even nowadays there are many people that believe men must be tough and never show vulnerability. Do men really cry less than women?

A study in 2002 looked at 31 countries and found that men of each country cried significantly less than women. On average, men cried once a month, whereas women cried 2-3 times a month. However, there is a strong cultural influence on this. For example, women in Peru cried less than American men. And before the age of 12, boys and girls cry equally. It’s only after puberty that the gender differences arise.

Whatever your opinion on gender roles, feeling pressured around a natural coping mechanism that is supposed to relieve pressure will be harmful. The taboo for men to show vulnerability can have far-reaching consequences and cause an overwhelming set of challenges, even on how men experience depression!

The red flags of crying

So when has crying become too much? There is no universal rule to this, because context plays an extremely important role. If you are in grief, for instance, after the loss of a loved one, crying isn’t necessarily the expression of a disorder. Identifying the difference between sadness and depression is essential.

Maybe you’re not only crying often, but you also feel down, have less energy, less joy in most things, or less appetite. You might feel guilty, have a very low self-esteem, or concentrate less – If so, you might be experiencing symptoms of depression. Maybe you don’t even know why you are crying. Do you feel like your everyday life has been affected by this?

All these red flags are common signs of depression or in some cases anxiety. If this is the case, most likely the functions of crying are not taking effect anymore, because the crying itself has become dysfunctional.

Accepting oneself but acknowledging the signs

In conclusion, crying is far from purposeless. No matter who you are, your pattern of crying is a part of you and learning to accept it will get you one step closer to being at peace with yourself. Emotions are an important and wonderful part of what it means to be human.

At the same time it is important to acknowledge the signs of depression and anxiety when they arise, instead of downplaying them. Stress and burnout can have an impact on our level of emotionality. And every fifth person will experience a depressive episode over the course of their lives. Lifting the taboo not only around crying but also around disorders is an important task we face as a society. If you are unsure what it is you’re experiencing, it is worth making sure.

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