Tears may not always offer relief

Crying is a physical response to an emotional situation, and it usually makes us feel better. This idea goes back thousands of years, at least to the ancient Greeks and Romans. More than 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet Ovid wrote,

    "It is a relief to weep; grief is satisfied and carried off by tears."

Although research into the causes and effects of crying has been limited, it has confirmed certain widely held assumptions: Crying is contagious; women cry more easily and often than men; and heart rate and breathing increase while crying and return to normal afterwards. But one assumption hasn't been proven—that crying is always cathartic, providing a purging of emotions and release of tension.

Despite conventional wisdom that "a good cry" is healthy and that "crying it out" helps resolve emotional difficulties, researchers haven't always found this to be the case. And since we've been conditioned to think that crying causes an improvement in mood, the times when we don't feel better can be confusing and upsetting.

Why Do We Cry?

Whether as an infant or an adult, crying is usually a request to connect with and be comforted by someone else—a parent, friend, or stranger. We expect that crying will prompt that person to come to our aid. Even if no one else is around, crying is still an expression of that desire. One theory suggests that the way our parents responded to our cries during infancy and childhood may affect how crying makes us feel as adults. In other words, people whose parents responded lovingly and attentively are likely to feel better after crying, while those whose parents ignored or chastised their crying may feel as badly or worse afterwards.

The Tracks of Your Tears

Even taking into account the different ways people are raised, most say that they feel better after a crying episode. Surveys have shown that 60 to 70 percent of people questioned about previous crying episodes assert that crying gives them a psychological boost—often a reduction in tension and a feeling of relief.

A 2008 study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology analyzed data on crying from more than 5,000 college students in 35 countries. More than half of the participants said they felt better mentally after they cried, some felt the same (38 percent), and few felt worse (10 percent).

The researchers found that people were most likely to feel better afterwards if they cried alone or in front of just one other person, as two thirds of them had. And a positive reaction from the other person present—comforting words, a hug, or understanding—was more strongly associated with catharsis than a negative reaction (such as anger). It's likely that the presence of more than one other person embarrassed the participants or made those present less likely to offer support.

However, memory can distort reality and just as our brains tend to selectively remember the best parts of past events, we may want to look back on times that we've cried and think that we felt better afterward. A 2008 review article asserts that in studies that induce crying in a laboratory setting (e.g., by showing clips from sad movies), participants reported feeling more distress after crying than before—especially those with depression or anxiety. People with mood disorders also are less likely to cry, the researchers found, but may need longer to recover than other people if they do cry.

Another reason for the differing results may be that it is difficult to reproduce a true crying situation in a laboratory and that people may feel differently when they're being watched with a clinical eye. But some researchers theorize that the presence or absence of social support can shape how we feel after a crying episode.

How to Handle the Tears

If you're with someone who is crying, try to emulate the positive social support group in the study mentioned above: Offer the person your understanding and reassuring words or a hug if you feel comfortable. If you're irritated or annoyed by their tears, keep it to yourself—expressing those thoughts could make the person feel worse.

If you are the one crying, either alone or with others, try to find peace in the situation that caused you to cry. Researchers have found that those who view crying as a resolution to a distressing event are most likely to find relief.

But if you don't feel better after crying, don't beat yourself up about it. Sometimes crying helps and sometimes it doesn't, and setting up an expectation of how you should feel afterwards can make you feel worse.

However, prolonged or frequent crying, particularly for no obvious reason, can be a sign of depression. If you feel like you can't control your crying or you're crying more than usual, see your doctor or a mental health professional.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 16 Aug 2013

Last Modified: 07 Jan 2015