CRYING IS HEALTHY?

the science of crying has grown over the past two decades, uncovering some interesting theories about the role of weeping in our lives.

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While crying in excess can be a sign of depression, it also helps people cope with emotional overwhelm, and it can draw support from caring others, helping connect us to one another and create a more compassionate society.

From the time babies are born, they communicate their needs to those around them via crying, eliciting the care they depend on to survive. Yet scientists believe that only human babies shed tears and that crying may have evolved to help protect helpless babies against predators by providing a non-vocal sign of distress.

As we age, we continue to cry now and then, but often for reasons other than discomfort or pain alone. We cry when we’re feeling sad or experiencing loss, with tears emphasizing our sorrow for ourselves and others. We may cry when we’re happy or moved—like at weddings, graduations, or award ceremonies. Or we can cry in frustration or helplessness (like when experiencing a computer crash), or when witnessing awe-inspiring events (like an extreme altruistic act of kindness).

Many people find crying to be self soothing when they experience intense emotion, perhaps because crying releases feel-good hormones, like endorphins and oxytocin.

Crying doesn’t necessarily improve health or resilience, though. In one study where people were exposed people to very sad movies (or non-emotive movies) and then had them undergo a stress test (by putting their hand in ice-cold water) to see if crying affected how well people tolerated the discomfort of the test and recovered afterward. It didn’t. There were no differences between people who cried or who didn’t cry in their response to the stress test.

However, there was a difference in their physiology while watching the movie. Those who cried during the sad movie had a more stable respiration rate than non-criers, and their elevated heart rate returned to normal more quickly. This suggests crying may help people regain physiological balance more quickly when they’re sad.

Cultural expectations  can play a role in crying’s benefits, too. For example, in countries that generally value group harmony over individual needs, people don’t approve of crying as much as those in Westernized countries, where individual expression is more valued. Potential disapproval could easily make people wary of crying, foiling potential catharsis.

 

When we cry, we are sending out a distress call of sorts to those around us, letting them know we’re overwhelmed. Tears naturally stimulate care and empathy in others, making them feel more connected to us and wanting to help. Even strangers or outsiders who cry seem warmer and closer to us, invoking our sense of care for them and encouraging our altruistic tendencies.

Shedding tears can also make other people see us as less threatening, making it easier to like us. Crying can help during interpersonal transgressions, too, as it signifys that someone is truly remorseful. For example, in one study, people who saw someone offering a public apology had greater empathy for the person, thought better of them, and felt more satisfied by the apology. They also believed the tearful apologizer would be less likely to offend again. Similarly, parents who see transgressing children cry are more likely to forgive and trust them to do better next time.

Crying may earn u more trust from others in other situations, too, as one study found. People in a lab who played a “trust game”—which involves trusting a stranger to reciprocate generosity—were more apt to share resources with a potential trustee if that person’s face showed tears versus no tears. However, in the same study, when people played a “dictator game”—where one person makes a take-it-or-leave-it offer to another player—they showed no preference for teary faces. The authors conclude that crying may make someone appear more trustworthy, but that won’t necessarily induce the person witnessing the crying to be altruistic.

While a lot of research on crying has been done in Western countries, one large scale study was done with over 7,000 people from 41 countries, giving a more universal look at crying’s purpose. Researchers showed participants faces with or without digitally added tears and asked how they felt about the person pictured. In all cases, faces with tears elicited a stronger intention to offer comfort to the person than faces without tears. People felt warmer, more empathic toward, and more connected to someone who appeared to be crying than someone who wasn’t, regardless of their gender, country of origin, or other factors involved.

Clearly, crying affects people in positive ways, though individual factors influence the strength of those effects. And, overall, the research is pretty clear that crying is generally good for social bonding. Not only will you likely feel better and draw support from others, you will make it safer for them to do the same. That could begin a more general cycle of kindness and care—and so create a more compassionate society for all.

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