Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #282) and blog, I talk about why crying is not a sign of weakness, the neuroscience behind crying, and how crying can be very beneficial both mentally and physically, especially when it comes to stress reduction, and more!
First up, it is important to note that crying is a complex and important behavior that has (surprisingly!) received relatively little attention from scientists. One of [the] main hypothesis regrading crying is that it is a way of signaling distress, joy or empathy, thereby promoting social interaction and support. In other words, crying is one of the main ways we use our body language to communicate how we feel and what we need to others. It can help us bond in a community and build meaningful relationships that enhance our life.
Of course, there is little debate that tears are significant social signals. Recent research even theorizes that “crying is an arousing behavior in response to distress, as well as a soothing behavior that reduces arousal after distress.” Based on this study, tears can be both a signal and validating response, helping us recognize and process the highs and lows of life.
One area of research that has been studied in depth is emotions, and the importance of finding healthy ways to express our thoughts and feelings. A number of studies have shown suppressing our complex thoughts with their embedded emotions can have negative repercussions in the mind, brain and body, which I discuss in detail in my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and examine in my recent clinical trials.
It is important to remember that thoughts are a product of our mind, and take up real estate in the mind and brain. Thoughts look like trees and are made of proteins, chemicals and electromagnetic energy. They are dynamic (always growing and changing) and are made of memories, like a tree is made of branches and roots that grow. Memories are made up of a combination of our experiences, our interpretations of these experiences and our emotions, and are “volcanic” in nature. What this means is that sometimes the emotions get so energized that they “spill” over (or need to be expressed in varying degrees of intensity) to restore balance in the mind and brain. This “spillover” essentially acts as a signal of an underlying issue in our life, much like the ebbs and flows of the earth that signal an oncoming volcanic eruption.
Tears are one way many people express their emotions to restore a sense of balance or equilibrium in their life. I am sure you have experienced this feeling at some point in your life! After a good cry, things often feel better, even if nothing has changed per se.
But what exactly are tears, and where do they come from? Tears come from the lacrimal glands in the eyes. When we start crying, there is an increase in sympathetic activity in the brain and body, which kindles our flight or fight response; when we stop crying there is an increase in parasympathetic activity in the brain and body, which helps calm us down (we go into “rest and digest mode).
Prolactin is one of the main chemicals that is released when we cry. Although prolactin is released when breastfeeding, it is also released in both males and females in response to negative and positive stress, and may help us manage our stress response. Other chemicals related to crying are oxytocin, vasopressin, and endogenous opioids, all of which can make us feel calm and more in control when released.
Crying also appears to activate the central autonomic network in the brain and the anterior central gyrus (ACC). The former helps restore balance in the brain and body, while the ACC is involved in cognitive fluency. This implies that the experience that led to the tears–good or bad—disturbed the balance or homeostasis in the neural networks, and affected the person’s ability to think. Consequently, crying is the mind and body’s way of restoring a degree of balance to the brain and unblocking thinking, a bit like “letting off steam” can relieve pressure in a machine.
When it comes to crying, there is no right and wrong way to cry, nor is there a “right” amount to cry. Just as everyone is different, our need to cry will be different, based on our own uniqueness as individuals and the particular situation we find ourselves in. The important point is NOT to suppress our feelings or feel shame for crying. It’s a perfectly normal, human response to both happy and adverse circumstances, and is a part of what it means to be human.
Crying is a messenger. It’s telling us something about ourselves and what we are going through. Consequently, any changes in a person’s unique pattern of responding or crying is worth paying attention to. For example, if you or someone close to you normally only cries now and then, but are suddenly crying a lot more, this may be a sign worth paying attention to.