If you’re like most of the human race, you’ve probably felt the urge to cry in public. As such, it’s also probable that you’ve held back your tears for one of several reasons. Maybe you don’t like the stigmas that come with crying. Perhaps you were in a truly inappropriate place to cry, such as a board meeting. Or, perhaps you thought that crying wouldn’t do you any good – so you might as well blink back those tears for another day to avoid looking weak.
How Common is Crying, Actually?
People cry more than you may think (even if they hide it). In the United States, estimates and polls suggest that women cry between 3 and 4 times per month, on average. Men, on the other hand, tend to cry about twice per month. While some of these tears are surely the result of physical pain, it’s safe to assume that many of them were shed as an emotional release. Perhaps, even, as an outlet of anxiety.
Modern media and changing sentiments around gender roles and the perception of emotion may help destigmatize crying. As a result, science is beginning to examine crying in more detail – such as whether or not crying is actually good for us. While this field of study is still in its infancy, there is some evidence that while crying initially makes us feel worse, it provides a relaxing release in time.
So, does that mean crying has hidden health benefits? And what about our mental health?
The goal of this article is to explore these questions and more. We’ll look at why we cry and the effects of tears on our emotions. Furthermore, we’ll discuss what science says on the matter to answer the question, “Does crying help with anxiety?”
Why Do We Cry?
Although past peoples have considered crying a sign of weakness, it may be more productive to think of it as a signal to others. Humans use visual and audible cues to communicate – and science suggests that crying may have evolved as a cue. Typically, it’s a signal that we’re currently in a situation where we feel upset, helpless, or unfulfilled emotionally.
As Time reported in 2016, there is evidence that we cry for a variety of reasons (other than physical pain), such as:
- To promote emotional bonding and connections
- Signaling to others that we feel helpless or need assistance
- Expressing vulnerability, potentially to manipulate others or reduce their aggression
- “Rebooting” or recovering from strong bouts of emotion
- As a form of self-soothing
Three Types of Tears
The human species, uniquely, produces three types of tears:
- Emotional tears, which we’ll discuss in this article, contain more stress hormones
- Basal tears are responsible for lubricating your eyes
- Reflex tears are the result of your body trying to flush out irritants such as dust, smoke, or even onions
Now that we have a basic framework for why (and what) we cry let’s take a look at what crying does to our bodies and minds.
How Does Crying Affect Our Emotions?
Many people report feeling a sense of relief after crying. However, in scientific studies, these reports don’t always line up with reality. In fact, that same Time article reported on one study at the time, authored by the world’s leading crying expert Ad Vingerhoets. He and his Netherland colleagues at Tilburg University showed study participants tear-inducing films in a lab setting. They found that:
- Immediately after the movie, those who cried were in a worse mood than those who didn’t
- After 90 minutes, those who cried were in a better mood than those who didn’t
- After 90 minutes, those who cried reported a better mood than before the movie began
This study suggests that, while crying may have some emotional benefits, they take time to set in. But what does this mean for our question – does crying help with anxiety?
How Does Crying Affect Us Physically?
Before we can answer that, it’s pertinent to address the physical effects of tears.
While the science is still in its infancy, we’re beginning to learn more details about how crying affects our bodies. One study published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology found that crying works by waking your parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS. The PNS is made up of all the nerves outside your brain and spinal cord. It’s also responsible for helping your body to process urgent stimuli (such as a burn) or entering periods of rest.
Studies also show that emotional tears are produced with higher levels of cortisol and other stress hormones than other tears. Furthermore, these types of tears also contain more manganese than the tears that lubricate your eyes. This may be due to the fact that crying activates your PNS, which turns on processes to increase manganese and cortisol output.
Additionally, crying can also increase the levels of oxytocin and other opioids in your brain, which dull physical pain. They may also help ease your emotional distress. By activating both of these processes at the same time, then, crying has the ability to make us feel good physically (once the hiccups have passed, anyway).
So, Does Crying Help with Anxiety?
There are no studies that directly address whether or not crying does help with anxiety. However, let’s take a look at the facts as presented above.
- While the results are not immediate, psychological studies show that crying can help improve mood overall. This suggests that people in distress, such as those experiencing anxiety, may find some delayed relief, too.
- Emotional tears contain high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, as well as manganese. By flushing your system of stress-related substances, crying may help to alleviate stress and anxiety on a chemical level.
- Crying increases the level of opioids and “feel good” chemicals in your brain. In addition to dulling pain, these can help alleviate emotional distress. Thus, this may lead to decreased levels of anxiety.
Certainly, more research is needed on the topic to determine whether or not crying does help with anxiety. In the meantime, however, the existing studies allow us to extrapolate inferences from the data. While the numbers don’t show that crying absolutely helps with anxiety, the chemical processes that occur suggest it can.
So, next time you feel the urge to cry come on, don’t blink those tears away. Curl up with a sad movie or a good book and feel your stress melt away.