Crying might not be on the top of your to-do list, but it might be a good idea to include it in your self-care routine. Research shows that crying can help us regulate our emotions, release stress hormones, and connect with others. The potential benefits of crying are so compelling that people in some countries like Japan and England pay money to attend crying clubs where they watch sad movies and are free to cry without shame.
So, how do you know if you’re crying enough to get the potential benefits or if your frequency of crying might be a sign that you should seek help?
Crying by the Numbers
According to research, women cry an average of 30-64 times per year and men cry between 5-17 per year. The average crying session lasts 8 minutes. So, theoretically if you’re a woman and you cry to two sad movies and a commercial, you could easily hit 2.5 cries per month.
Crying to Connect
According to research, crying signals distress and promotes social bonding. It lets people know that there is some important problem that is temporarily beyond our ability to cope. This type of vulnerability often leads to compassion from others.
It’s likely that our biology evolved to make sure that we get the support we need. Unlike tears that come from irritants like peeling onions, emotional tears are made up of chemicals that are more viscous. Their stickiness makes them more likely to slide down our faces slowly so that others actually see them. Along with eliciting compassion, tears can potentially reduce aggression in others. In one study, smelling a woman’s tears reduced testosterone in men.
There’s yet another way that crying promotes social bonding. Research shows that people who cry are seen as warm and friendly.
Crying Can Be Cathartic
- Emotional crying releases stress through hormones such as cortisol.
- Emotional tears release opiods that increase our tolerance for physical and emotional pain.
- Emotional tears activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) so that we feel soothed and calm after crying.
- Crying can regulate our emotions by helping us recover, get relief, and a sense of control after a stressful event or even intense positive emotions such as joy.
What Makes Crying Helpful or Unhelpful?
Research shows that there are some factors that determine whether crying is helpful or unhelpful. When crying leads to social support or a resolution to a stressful event, it’s helpful. Achieving a new understanding of the stressful event (or a new insight into suffering such as in grief) also makes crying helpful. Meanwhile, trying to suppress crying or being shamed for it can increase stress and make the experience unbeneficial.
Highly Sensitive People
One group that has a higher tendency to cry and is potentially more likely to elicit reactions for crying is people who are highly sensitive. The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was introduced in the nineteen nineties by researcher and psychologist Dr. Elaine N. Aron. HSPs are people who have a more sensitive nervous system and tend to process information deeply.
In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, Dr. Aaron states that HSPs often retreat to cry because of their emotional reactivity. Interestingly, research by Dr. Jadzia Jagiellowicz shows that HSPs are more likely than those without the trait to react more emotionally to positive stimuli. Research by Dr. Bianca Acevedo and other HSP researchers also shows that the parts of the brain that are responsible for empathy are more active in HSPs. All of these factors contribute to a greater tendency to cry in HSPs.
Unfortunately, being highly sensitive is sometimes pathologized or shamed and can lead to suppressing crying (at least in public) among HSPs. In my experience working with HSPs in psychotherapy, crying tends to be an emotion regulation strategy that allows HSPs to release any intense emotion (whether it’s joy or disappointment) and recover – sometimes very quickly as long as it is met with acceptance.
3 Situations that Warrant Seeking Help
1. Complicated Grief
People who are grieving a loss are also more likely to cry. Grieving is a natural process that has no specific end date. The more that emotions are allowed to flow, the more healing that occurs. There are some situations, however, in which grieving can become a clinical issue. When it is chronic and debilitating or complicated by other losses, previous trauma, substance abuse, or depression, it can require further support or grief counseling.
Frequent crying can be a sign of depression. Not being able to cry at all, if it is accompanied by other symptoms, can also be a sign of depression. Interestingly, studies show that people who are depressed might not get the same benefits from crying that others get. For example, they don’t experience an activation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System following crying that people who aren’t depressed experience. If you’re struggling with your mood, it’s important to seek a mental health consultation.
Some other signs of depression include: chronic sad mood; loss of interest or pleasure; irritability; loss of energy; feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness; changes in sleep or appetite; and thoughts of self-harm.
If crying feels unsafe and overwhelming to you because of trauma, consider seeing a trauma-informed therapist who can help you process your feelings.
Crying and Self-Care
If crying feels good to you, let the tears flow. Watch romantic or sad movies. Look at art or listen to music if it moves you. Allow yourself to cry around supportive people. Take in a moment of genuine gratitude until tears well up. You might just find that crying is one of our best, and totally free, forms of self-care.
I’d love to hear from you: Do you think we should give crying more credit?
*The National Helpline number for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).