How to Have a Good Cry—and Recognize a Bad One
Our eyes can tear up for many reasons: to lubricate the eye or flush out dust, for example. But typically, when we talk about crying, we’re referring to the emotional response to experiences such as pain, grief, or overwhelming happiness. While some well intentioned people might tell you “Don’t cry,” crying may be healthy for you in a variety of ways.
Here’s what to know about crying—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Letting It Out May Improve Your Well-Being
Not crying when you need to may actually be a health issue. “Chronically suppressing tears—or any emotion for that matter—can be detrimental to one’s health and well‑being,” says Lauren Bylsma, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Some research has suggested that those who are more inclined to tamp down or ignore their emotions (or their urge to get teary) may have increased rates of high blood pressure, cancer, and other health issues.
The takeaway? Allowing yourself to get emotional may help your overall wellness.
Crying Can Help You Make Sense of Your Emotions
According to a study conducted by Bylsma and colleagues, crying can be a relieving experience when dealing with distress—particularly after coming to an understanding of the issue at hand, experiencing a resolution, or receiving social support while crying.
“One particularly important aspect appears to be social,” notes Bylsma. For example, crying to your friends about a breakup and gaining their empathy and support can feel cathartic.
However, it’s okay if you aren’t comfortable crying in front of others. “People often cry alone,” says Bylsma, “and in these situations, crying may help a person to emotionally process what is bothering them or to reach a new understanding of a situation.”
What’s more, one study found that crying happy tears could help participants attain emotional equilibrium after dealing with intense positive emotions.
Crying Can Help with Pain Management
It’s normal to cry when you’re in pain—but did you know that this emotional response may actually help increase your pain tolerance? Research suggests that, through crying, your body releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids—these are natural feel-good chemicals created by your body that can help numb your physical pain.
“The chemical makeup of emotional tears is actually different [from other types of tears],” says Debra Kissen, Ph.D., chief executive officer of LightOnAnxiety CBT Treatment Centers in Chicago and co-chair of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s public education committee. “There are some feel-good hormones that come along with emotional crying versus tearing up because of some dust that gets into your eyes.”
Crying May Help You Feel Less Stressed
If you’ve ever cried when you’re feeling stressed, there’s good news: Research suggests that crying’s release of oxytocin in the body may also help decrease the body’s stress response and induce a sense of calmness and well‑being.
Crying Is a Form of Communication
Crying can be a way to elicit empathy and compassion from others. “When we cry, we're signaling to another party—and also to ourselves—that we've reached our breaking point,” says Kissen. “It's kind of like waving a white flag.” Often what you get in return is social support from friends or family members, which can help you feel better.
So, Is Every Cry Beneficial?
The short answer is no—research by Bylsma and others suggests that not all crying may provide benefits. It really depends on the context of what’s triggering a sobbing episode.
“Crying appears to function to elicit caregiving or support from others, and when [that’s] successful, crying is more likely to be experienced as beneficial,” Bylsma says. “Conversely, when someone cries in a situation in which they feel ashamed or embarrassed, such as around strangers or individuals who are not supportive, they are more likely to find that crying is not beneficial.”
The health effects of crying may vary depending on the person, as well as on the experience.
How Often Should You Let Yourself Cry?
There’s no official recommendation for how often you should be letting it all out. “It’s not like getting 10,000 steps a day,” Kissen says.
If you’re wondering about averages, though, older research from 2011 involving self-reports from over 5,000 people spanning 37 countries suggests that women tend to have a good emotional cry anywhere from 30 to 64 times a year, whereas men do the same only five to 17 times a year, on average.
Crying is a very individualized experience, Bylsma adds. “It may be perfectly normal and healthy for someone to hardly cry at all, while for someone else, [it may be normal] to cry quite frequently,” she says.
When to Question Your Crying Habits
While crying has its perks, tearfulness can sometimes signal a deeper issue worth examining. If you’re crying so frequently that it starts to interfere with your ability to go about your day normally, it may be a sign that you should seek help from a mental health professional, Kissen explains.
How you feel after crying also matters when you’re considering whether it’s helpful. “If someone doesn’t seem to be getting the usual benefit of crying, this could be a sign they may benefit from more social support, psychotherapy, or other mental health services,” Bylsma says.
Determining whether a lack of crying could be a sign of a problem can be a little trickier. “Sometimes, in more severe forms of depression and anxiety, the person may actually experience emotional numbness and corresponding difficulty with crying,” Bylsma says.
If you’re concerned about your crying habits, Kissen suggests keeping a log that includes the following information about each episode:
- Triggers that may have contributed to the crying episode
“Gather some empirical support for your own relationship with crying,” Kissen advises. Then you’ll have something concrete to share with your doctor or therapist to determine whether your tears are helpful, or whether you need a different kind of emotional support.
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