Humans are the only species to weep from emotions, but scientists still don’t know exactly how the physical act of crying is connected to our feelings.
While you might think that crying would make you feel better if it means your stress is relieved—and it does, sometimes. “In surveys about two-thirds of people generally report feeling better after crying,” says Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida.
Crying in the wrong place at the wrong time, or around people who react negatively to your crying can definitely make you feel worse.
Not surprisingly, crying in humans first evolved as a way for an infant to get its mother’s attention.
When we communicate with others through tears, we are revealing our own vulnerability. “With supportive people, it can create an increased feeling of bonding and connection,” Dr. Orloff says.
Anyone who’s ever cried after getting pulled over for speeding knows that tears can be a way to provoke a specific reaction that works in our favor.
If crying is such an important communication tool, why do we cry when we’re alone? A poll by the airline Virgin Atlantic, which now gives “emotional health warnings” before sad movies, showed that 41 percent of men hid tears in their blankets while on flights
The biochemist William Frey performed some groundbreaking crying research in the late 1970s and early 1980s that suggests that tears help rid the body of unwanted toxins.
Another one of the purported benefits of crying is that it helps kill bacteria. It is true that tears contain lysozyme, a protein that can destroy harmful molecules.
Tears moisten the eyes and keep them healthy. “The biological function of tears is to keep the eye moist or protect it from fumes or debris that get into the eye,” says Dr. Bylsma.
Higher testosterone levels may mean men are less likely to cry. “There is mainly anecdotal evidence—in transgendered [people] and men with prostate cancer receiving anti-hormones, but also some animal studies—that testosterone has an inhibitory effect on crying,” Dr. Vingerhoets says.
Crying isn’t just an emotional act—it’s a physical one. Wracking sobs, headaches, blotchy skin, a runny nose, and full-body shakes are just a few of the effects crying can have on your body.
In both men and women, other hormones may be affected by crying. “Though the little available evidence is not really strong, it’s been suggested that prolactin may facilitate crying,” Dr. Vingerhoets says.
Just as with negative emotions, a level of heightened arousal due to positive feelings can lead to crying. “Crying from negative emotions like sadness, frustration, and anger is more common but crying does occur during extreme positive emotions too, like happiness, wonder, and awe,” says Dr. Bylsma.