Interestingly, humans are the only animals to cry tears. This article explores why we cry and what health benefits crying may have.
Why do people cry?
Crying is a natural response to emotions or irritants like dust in the eyes.
Humans produce three types of tears:
- Basal: The tear ducts constantly secrete basal tears, which are a protein-rich antibacterial liquid that help to keep the eyes moist every time a person blinks.
- Reflex: These are tears triggered by irritants such as wind, smoke, or onions. They are released to flush out these irritants and protect the eye.
- Emotional: Humans shed tears in response to a range of emotions. These tears contain a higher level of stress hormones than other types of tears.
When people talk about crying, they are usually referring to emotional tears.
Benefits of crying
People may try to suppress tears if they see them as a sign of weakness, but science suggests that doing so could mean missing out on a range of benefits. Researchers have found that crying:
1. Has a soothing effect
Self-soothing is when people:
- regulate their own emotions
- calm themselves
- reduce their own distress
A 2014 study found that crying may have a direct, self-soothing effect on people. The study explained how crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps people relax.
2. Gets support from others
As well as helping people self-soothe, crying can help people get support from others around them.
As this 2016 study explains, crying is primarily an attachment behavior, as it rallies support from the people around us. This is known as an interpersonal or social benefit.
3. Helps to relieve pain
These chemicals make people feel good and may also ease both physical and emotional pain. In this way, crying can help reduce pain and promote a sense of well-being.
4. Enhances mood
Crying may help lift people's spirits and make them feel better. As well as relieving pain, oxytocin and endorphins can help improve mood. This is why they are often known as "feel good" chemicals.
5. Releases toxins and relieves stress
When humans cry in response to stress, their tears contain a number of stress hormones and other chemicals.
Researchers believe that crying could reduce the levels of these chemicals in the body, which could, in turn, reduce stress. More research is needed into this area, however, to confirm this.
6. Aids sleep
A small study in 2015 found that crying can help babies sleep better. Whether crying has the same sleep-enhancing effect on adults is yet to be researched.
However, it follows that the calming, mood-enhancing, and pain-relieving effects of crying above may help a person fall asleep more easily.
7. Fights bacteria
Crying helps to kill bacteria and keep the eyes clean as tears contain a fluid called lysozyme.
8. Improves vision
Basal tears, which are released every time a person blinks, help to keep the eyes moist and prevent mucous membranes from drying out.
As the National Eye Institute explains, the lubricating effect of basal tears helps people to see more clearly. When the membranes dry out, vision can become blurry.
When to see a doctor
Crying has a number of health benefits, but frequent crying may be a sign of depression.
Crying in response to emotions such as sadness, joy, or frustration is normal and has a number of health benefits.
However, sometimes frequent crying can be a sign of depression. People may be depressed if their crying:
- happens very frequently
- happens for no apparent reason
- starts to affect daily activities
- becomes uncontrollable
Other signs of depression include:
- having trouble concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions
- feeling fatigued or without energy
- feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
- feeling pessimistic or hopeless
- having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- feeling irritable or restless
- not enjoying things that were once pleasurable
- overeating or undereating
- unexplained aches, pains, or cramps
- digestive problems that do not improve with treatment
- persistent anxiety
- suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm
If a person is experiencing symptoms of depression, or someone they know is, then they should talk to a doctor.
Should a person feel suicidal, or know someone who is feeling that way, they should call:
- emergency services
- the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 800-273-8255 (if in the U.S.).
Crying is a normal human response to a whole range of emotions that has a number of health and social benefits, including pain relief and self-soothing effects.
However, if crying happens frequently, uncontrollably, or for no reason, it could be a sign of depression. If this is the case, it is a good idea to speak to a doctor.