How crying can make you healthier

We all know a good cry helps to soothe our minds. Now doctors are discovering that tears may help to heal our bodies, too. Roger Dobson reports

It makes nine out of 10 people feel better, reduces stress, and may help to keep the body healthy. It's also free, available to almost everyone, and has no known side effects, other than wet tissues, red eyes and runny makeup. Crying may not be a blockbuster drug, but the latest research suggests it's highly effective at healing, and that it improves the mood of 88.8 per cent of weepers, with only 8.4 per cent feeling worse. So beneficial is it that the researchers suggest there may be a case for inducing crying in those who find it difficult to let go.

But while almost all of us shed emotional tears at some time – at least 47 times a year for women, and seven for men – exactly why we cry, and much about what happens when we do, remains a mystery. For crying, a uniquely human form of emotional expression, to have survived evolution, it should have a practical purpose and give some kind of survival advantage. Laughter and anger are both well known to have advantages. Laughter, for example, has been shown to promote healing, increase blood flow, reduce levels of stress hormones, boost the immune system and produce more disease-fighting compounds.

But what of crying? Emotional tears come from the same tear glands that produce the fluid that forms a protective film over the eyeballs to keep them free of irritants, and which also releases extra fluid when the eye becomes irritated, or is invaded by a foreign body.

A clue to the purpose of crying may lie in the experimental finding that emotional tears contain different compounds from regular eye watering, such as that triggered by chopping onions.

The phenomenon supports the so-called recovery theory, that emotional tears, and their contents, may be a way of getting the body back in balance after a stressful event. "I have suggested that we may feel better after crying because we are literally crying it out. Chemicals that build up during emotional stress may be removed in our tears when we cry,'' says William Frey, professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Minnesota. "Because unalleviated stress can increase our risk for heart attack and damage certain areas of our brain, the human ability to cry has survival value.''

Other evidence backs up the theory. It's been shown that tears associated with emotion have higher levels of some proteins, and of manganese and potassium, and hormones, including prolactin than mere eye watering. Manganese is an essential nutrient, and too little can lead to slowed blood clotting, skin problems, and lowered cholesterol levels. Too much can also cause health problems. Potassium is involved in nerve working, muscle control and blood pressure.

Prolactin is a hormone involved in stress and plays a role in the immune system and other body functions. Its involvement in tears may help to explain why women cry more than men. Women have more prolactin than men, and levels rise during pregnancy, when the frequency of crying among women also increases.

There have also been some claims that crying can reduce pain, although there has been little research into this area. The phenomenon, if verified, may be an indirect effect – in that crying may trigger physical contact with another individual and touch has been linked to improved wellbeing.

A counter theory is that crying doesn't so much help the body recover from whatever triggered the tears, but that it increases arousal to encourage behaviours to see off the threat. In support of this theory, some research shows that skin sensitivity increases during and after crying, and that breathing deepens. Some argue that crying could perform both these functions: "It is possible that crying is both an arousing distress signal and a means to restore psychological and physiological balance," say researchers at the University of South Florida. Others suggest that emotional tears signal distress and encourage group behaviour, as well as improve social support and inhibit aggression.

A study at Tilburg University in The Netherlands shows that both men and women would give more emotional support to someone who was crying, although they judged less positively someone who wept. Another study showed men were liked best when they cried and women when they did not. "Overall, results support the theory that crying is an attachment behaviour designed to elicit help from others,'' say the Dutch researchers.

In the latest study, at the University of South Florida, researchers found that almost everyone feels better after a cry and that personality has a big effect on how often we cry. Neurotics were more frequent criers and were more easily and quickly moved to tears. The American researchers suggest that the beneficial effects of crying may make induced weeping a useful therapy for some people. In, particular, they propose that it may be suitable for people who have difficulty expressing their emotions.

"The overwhelming majority of our participants reported mood improvement after crying,'' they say. "Our results may have also implications for clinical interventions. Currently there is only anecdotal evidence that learning how to cry and how to derive positive effects from it could help people who are having difficulty expressing sadness or crying.

"Our findings support the idea that people with alexithymic [a deficiency in feeling emotions] or anhedonic [the inability to derive pleasure from pleasurable experiences] tenden-cies may profit from therapeutic interventions that encourage crying.''

Like other researchers, the Florida psychologists suggest more work is needed to understand the origins, nature, and function of crying. New research is under way, including teams of brain mappers using scans to locate the areas of the brain involved in crying. Some of it supports the recovery theory, while other work backs up the arousal idea. More support has also been shown for the social role of crying.

Some studies are giving intriguing new insights into shedding tears. When researchers at Bunka Women's University and Nagano College in Japan, set out to investigate what they call the passive facial feedback hypothesis, they produced a surprise finding. In an experiment, they simulated the experience of tears by dropping 0.2 ml of water on to the tear duct of both eyes. They report that 53.8 per cent of the 100 or so men and women felt sad when the water ran down their cheek, compared with 28.6 per cent who were cheerful.

The increasing research into crying and its beneficial health effects may also make shedding tears less of a taboo behaviour. As Professor Frey, author of Crying: the Mystery of tears, points out, it is no accident that crying has survived evolutionary pressures. Humans are the only animals to evolve this ability to shed tears in response to emotional stress, and it is likely that crying survived the pressures of natural selection because it has some survival value,'' he says. "It is one of the things that makes us human.''

Not a dry eye: Weeping by numbers

20% of bouts of crying last longer than 30 minutes

8% go on for longer than one hour

70% of criers make no attempt to hide their crying

77% of crying takes place at home

15% at work or in the car

40% of people weep alone

39% of crying occurs in the evening, the most popular time compared with morning, afternoon, and night (16, 29 and 17 per cent respectively)

6-8pm is the most common time for crying

88.8% feel better after a cry

47: average number of times a woman cries each year

7: annual number of crying episodes for a man

Sob story: The science of tears

Three types of tear are produced by the lachrymal gland above the eye.



Continuous or basal tears, produced to keep the eye surface permanently moist and protected contain water, lipids or fats and proteins. They also contain compounds that protect against infections. Each blink of the eyelid spreads tears.



Reflex tears have a similar make-up and are a reaction to irritants or foreign objects.



Emotional tears have a different make-up including enkephalin, an endorphin and natural painkiller.

"Emotional tears contain higher concentrations of proteins, manganese, and the hormone prolactin which is produced during stress-induced danger or arousal,'' says Dr Carrie Lane of the University of Texas .

A question of sex: Why big boys boo hoo

* While women cry more than men, tearful males are becoming increasingly acceptable in society.



* A moist eye, perhaps a tear or two, at the right time, and in the right place, are now viewed more kindly, say researchers.



* Until relatively recently, crying was associated with sensitive, weak men, while now it is linked to strong, powerful men. One theory is that a driving force behind the change has been powerful and emotional events such as 9/11.



* Norms for men and crying are changing. Certain types of expressions that were proscribed for men are now becoming more acceptable. "It may be that certain types of tears are no longer associated with powerlessness, and thus no longer conflict with assertions of masculinity,'' says Professor Stephanie Shields of Pennsylvania State University.



* In the research, Professor Shields and colleagues quizzed men and women about reactions to crying by men and women. The results showed that crying at serious events by both men and women was rated positively.



* The results also show that men were rated more highly when they cried out of sadness than anger. The reverse was the case for women. Men who cried in sadness were more positively rated than women who cried because they were sad. The results also show that men who have a wet eye and a tear or two are rated more highly than men who weep.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

    £30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

    Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

    £34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

    Developer - WinForms, C#

    £280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform