The Science of a Good Cry

Crying is a great unifier. If fact, it’s likely the first thing you ever did, your entry into this world: a gulp of air, a wail. I was a weepy kid, an almost sadistically wet-eyed teen, and could be set off by something as unremarkable as a commercial for a pharmacy well into my 20s. And then my boyfriend of eight years started sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend. I’d say I cried for five months straight, a constant leak, waterlogged and frail, until, one day, I simply…stopped.

For someone who had spent a life measuring her emotional state by tears shed, it was a really confusing time. I still felt sad, although my sadness had become more a state of being, rather than an emotion. I felt powerful in my darkness, if not exactly alive. I’m over him, but I never fully regained what I realize now was a softness, a willingness to risk pain for the potential of joy.

Recently, I heard a radio report extolling the virtues of “the good cry,” and I got a little annoyed. It didn’t seem fair that something I had once had such a claim to was now beyond my ability, especially if it was supposed to make you healthier. I am all about being healthier, she says, the woman with the salt lamp, the yoga mat, the crystals on the coffee table.


So I called Dr. Lauren Bylsma, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. She specializes in crying research, which sounds like a really fun way to spend our small parcel of days on earth. As she pointed out, crying is actually a deeply odd phenomenon: humans are the only animals that cry, and our eyes lubricate without a need for emotional tears, so what’s going on?

Existing but nascent research suggests that tears may help our bodies self-regulate: since blood pressure and heart rate rise before a cry and decrease afterwards, tears could play a function in returning the body to homeostasis. Additionally, tears produced during an emotional episode contain manganese and potassium, both essential nutrients for regulating blood pressure and cholesterol. They also contain prolactin, a stress and immune hormone.

Or at least, we think they do. It turns out it is really, really hard to collect tears. For one, it’s difficult to make someone cry, at least ethically. In Bylsma’s lab, patients watch a scene from the 1979 Jon Voight vehicle The Champ, which has a 40% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and which I found on YouTube. Yes, it’s distressing, but full disclosure: I didn’t cry. This movie has actually been decreed by science to be THE SADDEST MOVIE EVER MADE, so the fact that I came up dry did nothing to assuage my fears.

And even if you can force someone to cry in a sterile laboratory, Bylsma notes that “people get really uncomfortable when they are crying and you’re holding a vial to their face,” meaning scientifically collecting tears is pretty hard work. In her view, it’s more likely that the evolutionary value of crying lies in the social response it prompts, rather than its parasympathetic function.

“If you ask people if they feel better after crying, most will say yes,” she says. “But if you take people into the lab and ask them whether the crying made them feel better or worse, they say they feel worse. It’s the positive social support that generates a mood benefit.” This might indicate that crying evolved as a subtle (or not) signal to your tribe: I need help. (Once, crying while walking up 9th Street in Brooklyn, I was approached by a group of barefoot hippies who asked me to cheer up, told me I was beautiful, that we should all get married, and to pet their dog. I did; he was soft. “Your tears are heavenly,” they promised me, as they wiped my face with their sticky fingers. They were most definitely very stoned.)


My life coach (I have a life coach), who as a trained therapist has so far refused to engage my fear that I am a dried-up trash husk of a human, says this about crying: “Emotions need to move in and through us. It’s not that I recommend crying specifically, though it is a great way to feel and process whatever is coming up, but rather that people should find a way to express whatever they are feeling in a manner that is appropriate for them and their circumstance.” I think that is therapy shorthand for “You’re perfect, don’t ever change.”

According to Bylsma, there are plenty of reasons that explain a person’s proclivity for or against tears: stigma has conditioned people out of a natural response; individuals with depression or who are being medicated for a mood disorder (hi!) cry less than others; extroverts are bigger weepers than introverts; and yes, women do cry more than men, up to three times more. Stress and lack of sleep also contribute to more tears. The reasons we cry are multifarious, and change dramatically as we age (kids are more likely to cry out of pain, or for attention; adults, on the other hand, report crying from beauty or empathy). In short, no one crier — or cry — is exactly alike.

Ever since I started talking about this piece, I’ve been inundated by crying stories. One girlfriend reported crying at 4 a.m. when her newborn daughter refused to nurse. There was a terminal cancer cry, and a phone call cry with a boyfriend over a stressful upcoming move. My best friend lost her father last year, suddenly and cruelly, and she cries constantly, and it doesn’t really matter why. Today, another friend reported strangling back tears during her office’s “wellness week” ten-minute chair massages. I asked Bylsma when she’d last cried, and immediately regretted it: she lost her cat recently. So yes, we’re crying, all of us, all the time, and that’s good: “It takes a lot to suppress tears,” says Bylsma, and people report significant negative mood effects when they do so.

Coincidentally or circumstantially, who knows, I’ve cried more in the weeks writing this piece than I have in recent memory. I cried during a dance show, washed alive by the beauty of the body in motion. I wine-sobbed when my boyfriend made a comment about our relationship I misinterpreted. My parents announced they’d decided to donate my grandmother’s piano, a 1920s Bechstein that held her spirit as much as anything inanimate truly can, and I wept, alone, a small echo of a much larger loss. Maybe I’m coming alive again, bit by bit, tear by tear.



Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.


Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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