Crying is often regarded as a sign of weakness, and even something to be ashamed of. But let’s continue to normalize crying, not only because those arguments are bullshit, but because science agrees that crying is important, actually. It releases toxins like stress hormones from our bodies, it triggers the production of the good brain chemicals, and can, in the end, actually elevate our moods.
If you’ve been trained to hold back your tears, it’s hard to understand what a healthy cry really is, and when having one is the most beneficial. So I spoke with health experts and psychologists about the ideal ways to use crying to help you maintain a sunnier outlook and a healthier body.
What happens when we cry?
We know tearing up feels like an effective way to release our pent-up emotions, but what really happens when we cry? Cognitive neuroscientist and mental health researcher Dr. Caroline Leaf notes that prolactin, one of the main chemicals released into our bodies when we cry, is the same one activated in mothers when they breastfeed. The body produces prolactin, “in response to negative and positive stress, and may help us manage our stress response,” Dr. Leaf says.
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.
Crying, in effect, relieves pressure. Keeping emotions bottled up can quite literally create chemical imbalances in our brains and bodies. Dr. Leaf refers to the act of crying as “letting off steam,” the same way opening a valve relieves dangerous pressure in a machine. So it stands to reason we should be crying more often—but how often and when should we be crying?
Crying: There’s no set schedule
Scientifically, there are three types of crying to consider: the production of basal tears, which coat your eyes with an anti-bacterial liquid when you blink; reflex tears, which protect your eyes from irritants like smoke, bacteria, or the fumes from onions; and emotional tears. According to Medical News Today these latter tears contain the highest level of stress hormones—so getting them out does the best job of removing those hormones from your body.
A study by Tilburg University found that women, on average, cry 3.5 times per moth, while men cry at a rate a bit more than half that, around 1.9 times. The question of whether this is “enough” is difficult to answer, so keeping these averages in mind can be helpful. Of course, crying too much—that is, crying uncontrollably, to the point it interferes with your normal daily function, can be a sign of deeper problems. If you’re looking for hard numbers, one study from the Journal of Research in Personality showed the average crying session lasts around eight minutes.
Not all crying is created equal. Basal and reflex tears are uncontrollable and a result of our environmental surroundings. They leak from our eyes just like emotional tears, but one is more socially acceptable than the other. Figuring out when to cry over a mote in your eye isn’t really an issue, but there is no right or wrong time to cry when it comes to your emotional wellbeing, either. It would be convenient but counterintuitive to practice crying on a set schedule; as Dr. Leaf notes, setting aside 30 minutes from your day to shed some emotional tears probably isn’t realistic for most people. Instead, simply cry when you feel like crying. Which is to say, we need to normalize crying softly in the bathroom at work.
Ways to normalize crying
Turning on the waterworks is easier said than done if you’ve been conditioned to hold back. But there are some ways to ease into your vulnerabilities and make crying a something you feel good about rather than ashamed of. Inspirational site the Budding Optimist recommends starting by never apologizing when you cry. Amy Stanton, the author of The Feminine Revolution, has written extensively about embracing the act of crying, and in a chapter of her book entitled “Crying Openly,” she examines the benefits of crying with others: “When we cry to others, we show ourselves and we allow ourselves to be seen. When we communicate to another why we’re crying, we’re fostering understanding and connection.”
Crying is one of the most human of acts, and being human with others only serves to reinforce the fact that crying is natural. Of course, you’ll only truly reap the full benefits when you are around people you feel comfortable being vulnerable with. The last thing you want is to make emotional progress and be judged in the process.
Exercises in vulnerability
Having the mental fortitude to cry when you need to is difficult, as years of training in hiding your emotions conflict with the stress and anxiety making you want to cry in the first place. In these situations, Dr. Leaf recommends a “mind management” tool known as neurocycle to ground yourself in a place of emotional stability.
This exercise can be done any time and for any reason but is particularly good for building comfortability around crying when you need to, she says. Here’s how it works:
First, calm the brain down by breathing deeply. I recommend breathing in for 5 counts and out for 11 counts, and repeating this technique 3 times (for around 45 seconds).
Then, GATHER awareness of the emotional and physical warning signals your body is sending you, which in this case would be crying. Embrace this signal, don’t judge them or try to suppress them (spend around 30 to 45 seconds doing this).
Now, REFLECT on how you feel: ask, answer and discuss why you are feeling and responding this way. Use specific sentences, like “I am crying because …”. Do this for around 1 minute.
After reflecting, WRITE down what you feel and why for around 1 minute. This will help you organize your thinking and give you insight into what your body and mind are trying to tell you.
Then, RECHECK what you have written, looking for your triggers and thought patterns. For example, you notice that you start crying when someone brings up a certain subject or you watch something on TV, as though this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and released all your pent-up stress.
Lastly, take action. I call this step the ACTIVE REACH. This can be a positive statement that validates your feelings or a boundary you put up to give yourself time and space to process how you feel.
Even after learning the benefits, it can still be difficult to embrace crying, especially in more formal environments like the workplace. But if you can figure out a way to work it into your routine in a healthy way, you’ll be better off. That’s just science.