Scientific research supports the accuracy of ancient folk wisdom that crying is good for our health. Although crying is a universal human experience that appears in every culture throughout history, we understand very little about this common yet mysterious phenomenon.
Traumatic events, prolonged stress, loneliness, loss, pain, and simple daily hassles often trigger crying. Yet, most people have also cried tears of happiness, joy, and relief. How often and for what reasons people weep are influenced by many factors including gender, age, perceptions of events, societal attitudes, health, personality characteristics, and so on. Curiously, we have learned more about weeping from poetry, fiction, and movies than from medical and psychological studies. However, these scientific studies provide strong and consistent evidence that crying is linked to significant health benefits.
Biomedical researchers have identified four biological mechanisms that function as catalysts influencing the amount of tears we will shed at a given time: genetic influences, dietary factors, hormone levels and circadian rhythms (we are more likely to cry if we are sleep deprived and at certain times of day). Once the tear switch is flipped a complex interplay of psychological and neurobiological processes allow tears to flow. We really know very little about the precise psychological and biological processes that initiate an episode of crying or when it will stop. However, recent biological studies offer strong clues to how and why crying is related to health benefits.
Commonly, people report they feel some sense of relief after a bout of crying. There is general agreement that there is a significant increase in the number, type and amount of stress hormones released in our bodies prior to crying. Consistently, researchers find that tears contain stress hormones. This is a critical finding since we know stress hormones cause damage to virtually all bodily systems.
During the last decade, stress hormones have been shown to cause serious damage to brain cells. Stress hormones have seem to target specific parts of the brain including the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and pre-frontal cortex. Unfortunately, stress hormones attack the very brain sites implicated in the perpetuation of mood disorders. As a result, stress hormones damage the exact sites capable of reducing or eliminating the release of the toxic stress hormones.
Finally, extensive biomedical studies demonstrate that stress hormones negatively affect virtually every system in the body including the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine, musculoskeletal, and immune systems. It is clear that crying is a primary way for the body to eliminate harmful stress hormones. Thus, crying is a natural and essential biological function that results in the elimination of stress hormones connected to every imaginable stress related health problem. The 21st century has started by removing any doubt about the positive health effects of crying.
Is it any wonder that people so often report feeling relieved after a good cry? From a public health perspective, it is obvious that the general public would benefit from a campaign to eliminate all stigma associated with crying so everyone can benefit from the innumerable positive health effects of crying.
Practitioner’s of folk wisdom have routinely encouraged people to allow themselves to cry telling the suffering soul that “a good cry will help you feel better”.
Some people report they rarely if ever shed tears while others indicate crying is just a natural part of their lives. Those of us that have an aversion to crying would do toss out impediments to crying. Actually it takes courage to shed tears. Many men seem to “get it” when informed the refusal to cry when a wave comes makes as much sense as refusing to take a piss when you really gotta go.
It is curious to watch scientists provide proof of things ordinary people have known for eons. Medical research has weighed in. We’ve been given “permission” by scientists to allow a natural biological function to occur with knowledge that crying has many health benefits. Let ‘er rip.
Kevin Keough, PsyD | Voices of Experience