Why People Cry: A General Overview

a woman crying

There are lots of emotionally charged situations that cause human beings to cry and while some of us cry more than others, crying for emotional reasons, positive and negative is an essential part of the human experience.  Many of the situations that cause people to cry are easy to understand, for example, watching a sad movie, or hearing bad news, or attending a sad event such as the funeral of a beloved friend or family member, as well as those times when we cry from sheer happiness.   But how is it that some people are far more prone than others to shed tears.  Emotionality like lots of personality variables can be measured on a spectrum.  Some people are simply more emotionally reactive than others although on average a person will shed about 64 liters of tears across their lifespan.

Before considering the role of emotionality, let’s look at some of the more mundane reasons that people find themselves tearing up. Lacrimation – or the production of tears to protect the eye is an important biological function.  We continuously produce what are known as “basal tears.”  These tears are produced to lubricate the eye’s cornea and contain antibacterial properties that are important for the maintenance of eye health.

There are also reflex tears, which are the tears we tend to shed when something is irritating our eyes.  This can be a physical irritant such as a speck of dust, or a chemical irritant like perfumes, or the onion vapor that bothers most people’s eyes when they chop onions, and can also be triggered by eating spicy foods.

However, the more interesting tears are those brought about by our psychological and physiological states.  These crying triggers are generally accompanied by “sobbing” and face reddening.  The tears produced due to these reasons have a different chemical makeup than reflex tears and basal tears.  They contain more hormones and a pain relieving compound, called Leu-enkephalin   which is an endogenous opioid peptide neurotransmitter.  When we shed these tears, our limbic system (emotional brain) is engaged.  There are a variety of physical conditions and diagnoses that can exacerbate crying such as hormonal imbalances and even simple sleep deprivation.  When a person is sleep deprived, the accompanying increase in fatigue levels can increase the likelihood of bursting into tears for no good reason.  Stress, anxiety, and depression are the most common emotional conditions that trigger tears, and if a person is experiencing increased levels of stress and anxiety  – those states alone can easily explain the teary state.  Dealing with the underlying stressors will likely alleviate unusually excessive crying.  It is important to know however that is a person is unable to remediate these situations alone, seeking the assistance of a mental health professional is highly recommended.

From a developmental perspective, babies cry to signal distress and discomfort.  They learn quickly that this is a signal that will elicit attention from their caregivers.  Interestingly, babies in poorly run orphanages settings don’t cry as they have learned that it does not bring about much needed human interaction.  Simply being female is another risk factor for tearing up quickly.  Male tear ducts are in general larger than female ducts, so tears spill out of girl’s eyes more readily than boy’s eyes.  Boys and men can blink those tears away whereas girls and women find themselves with rivulets running down their cheeks.  Social science research has also shown that women are more socially conditioned to cry than men.   In some situations, crying elicits higher levels of social support and responsiveness from friends and family members; and for some people that might be an adaptive coping strategy for dealing with whatever situation brought on the tears in the first place.  As such, crying elicits sympathy of others.  On occasions, people will cry while in the midst of an argument or conflictual situation, as at times, it can lead to a quicker resolution of the issue, since crying tends to elicit feelings of guilt or compassion from others.  Perhaps as one researcher has been quoted as saying, “Crying seems to elicit compassion and guilt, and that itself may be an evolved mechanism to save relationships in distress…… It’s like a trigger that tells us to back off.” (Jesse Bering of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Belfast University in an interview to NPR).  For some people, simply having a good cry is experienced as a stress reliever. as it has a cathartic effect.  There is a theory that crying triggers the release of endorphins.  So choosing to watch a late night tear jerker may in the end be beneficial as a stress reliever.

One study published in Science (2011) from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel authored by Noam Sobel suggests that when men smell a woman’s tears, there is an associated dip in testosterone such that sexual arousal is diminished.  Sobel concluded that there is a chemical signal in these tears whose function is to reduce sexual overture and arousal from men to women.

There is even a condition called pathological laughter and crying (PLC) which is a disorder of emotional expression and not disturbance of feelings.  Patients with this disorder have damage to certain brain pathways that would usually manage the behavioral response.  When these pathways are damaged the patient is “disinhibited.”   Interestingly, this research links the behaviors of laughing and crying and gives us neurological correlates for the experience of “crying with laughter” In fact what both laughing and crying have in common is that they are both experiences of significantly heightened emotional arousal.  Neuroscientists have shown that the brain areas associated with heightened emotional arousal, specifically the hypothalamus and basal ganglia are connected to the lacrimal nucleus which is the nucleus in the brainstem responsible from tear production.  So it is likely that regardless of whether the crying was stimulated by a positive or negative state, the act of crying helps the body to return to its homeostatic state or baseline level of emotional functioning.

People who enjoy a good cry are often concerned about their swollen eyes and red face after a good cry.  These signs can dissipate quickly but for some people they can remain for an hour or more.  There are some good ways to reduce the telltale signs of an emotional cry and generally involve cooling down the area under the eye.  There are a couple of tried and tested ways to do this. One can gently press cold fingers onto the swollen area after cooling fingers by placing them on an ice cube or other frozen material.  Using a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth and placed over the eye area worked) as well.  Others report success from putting green tea bags (which have been steeped recently in water) over the eyes as the anti-oxidants in the tea reduce swelling by constructing blood vessels.  Another source suggests using refrigerated cucumber slices.  Whatever method used to cool the eyes, experts suggest pressing from the under corner of the eye outward to help drain the accumulated liquid and then following up with a good eye serum, preferably with yellow overtones which reduce the visible redness.

 

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Alyson Aviv, Ph.D, ABPdN

Dr. Aviv is a licensed clinical psychologist and the pediatric neuropsychologist. Dr. Aviv has expertise in thorough and accurate diagnosis of ADHD, learning difficulties, dyslexia, autism spectrum, developmental issues, emotional disorders, behavioral disorders, adjustment difficulties, and marital and family issues. She is also a provider of COGMED (an evidence based cognitive therapy program for people with poor working memory – common in ADHD). Dr. Aviv’s approach involves clarifying the source of difficulties, identifying strengths, and determining a path forward for future happiness, success, and productivity for all of her patients. Alongside her clinical work, Dr. Aviv sits on the boards of educational and mental health non-profit organizations.