How to Have a Good Cry
The appearance of tears was once thought to be a curious trait of nature. Now scientists are realizing that crying is quite complicated and may even help us thrive as human beings.
A Whole-Body Experience
Experts don’t know what goes on in the brain just before a tearful breakdown. In some cases, memories and sensory stimuli,
such as a hug from your sister, may come into play. In other situations, they may not. A rush of stress hormones could simply
flood our bloodstream—instantaneously and independently.
And then we cry.
A region in the brain stem called the lacrimal nucleus orders the lacrimal glands (the little tear ducts nestled in the corner of each eye) to open their floodgates, says Anne Sumers, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and an ophthalmologist in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
The duration of a crying session depends on the level of emotion. In a landmark 1983 study on crying published in the journal Integrative Psychiatry, participants reported that their tears flowed for as little as two seconds and as long as 42 minutes. (The most commonly reported length of a cry for women was one minute.) Sometimes the nose starts to drip, too. That’s because the tear ducts are directly connected to the nasal cavity. In a sense, you end up “crying” out of your nose.
What happens to the rest of the body is still unclear. In a 1994 study published in the journal Psychophysiology, subjects who cried during a sad movie sweated slightly more than did those who retained their composure. They also experienced a decrease in skin temperature of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, which may be why we sometimes feel like bundling up in a sweater after a good cry. (Also at play may be a psychological desire to feel safe.)
Crying is a response to stress on the autonomic nervous system, the one responsible for involuntary behavior, such as the heart beating. When we cry, we’re probably already recovering from the height of our trauma and our stress hormones are beginning to decline. “We usually experience crying as a letting go or going off duty,” says Jay Efran, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia.
The Benefits of a Breakdown
Why did we evolve to cry? The answer might lie, in part, in the tears. They contain special chemicals, such as nerve growth
factor, that have an antidepressant and perhaps stress-reducing effect, says Robert E. Provine, Ph.D., a professor of psychology
and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, in Baltimore, and the author of Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond ($25, amazon.com). (Interestingly, while those with mild and moderate depression tend to cry often, those with severe depression cry less
than average.) Tears also communicate to others the intensity of the emotion you’re feeling and, in some cases, your vulnerability.
All cries, in a sense, are a cry for help or, at the very least, for some caretaking. “When we cry in public, we place a demand
on the people around us. The message is ‘Pay attention to me; deal with my needs; respond to me; do what I want,’ ” says Lutz.
And you know what? Even though some still view crying as a weakness theoretically, most people respond to it favorably on a personal level. Nearly 70 percent of people view coworkers who display emotion at the office as more human, according to research by Anne Kreamer, a journalist and the author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace ($15, amazon.com). What’s more, about 41 percent of working women surveyed in 2010 said that they had cried at the office in the previous year, and that number included women at all levels of seniority. (In other words, crying doesn’t seem to get in the way of moving up the corporate ladder.) In a sense, crying spurs humans to bond and band together, which was probably important for survival for our ancestors in the wild but is also helpful in the modern-day jungle.