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Why do Humans Cry?

Angie Garcia

Written By:

Angie Garcia

Updated: 08 June 2023 •  
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Humans cry for many reasons. It’s a natural response to various emotions, not just sadness.
 
You might cry when you’re overjoyed, frustrated, or physically hurt. Because of this complexity, the answer to “Why do humans cry” can be a little complex.
 
And while it might seem odd to cry in situations that aren’t necessarily sad, it turns out that there’s a good reason for it.
 
Crying serves a critical function in our physiology and psychology.
 
While scientists are still trying to understand the role of tears fully, it’s clear that they play an essential part in our lives.
 
Let’s delve into the science and meaning behind why humans cry.
 

Our tears appear for different reasons

woman shedding tears with her eyes closed
Tears are a natural lacrimal gland secretion above each eye’s outer corner. While all tears contain water, salt, and various proteins, there are three distinct types of tears, each with its unique composition and purpose.
 

Basal tears

 
Basal tears are a constant shield from dirt and debris to lubricate our eyes.
 
Eye strain can also cause the tear glands to produce more basal tears as a protective mechanism.
 
They contain enzymes, antibodies, and other immune factors that help kill bacteria and prevent infection.
 

Reflex tears

 
We generate reflex tears as a reaction to irritants such as smoke, dust, or the fumes released from onions.
 
Compared to basal tears, they are produced in more significant amounts and may contain a higher concentration of antibodies to combat bacterial infections.
 

Emotional tears

 
This type is our body’s response to strong emotions like happiness, sadness, or frustration.
 
Tears shed due to emotional states contain protein-based hormones that can assist in reducing emotional stress and act as signals of the specific emotional states to those around us.
 

What’s the emotional function of tears?

blonde woman crying due to emotions
While all tears serve a physiological function, emotional tears strongly connect to our emotional well-being. Some researchers believe that emotional tears are critical in helping us regulate our emotions and communicate our feelings to others.
 

Emotional release theory (catharsis hypothesis)

 
One theory behind the function of emotional tears is the release theory or catharsis hypothesis.
 
According to this, crying helps us release and process emotions healthily. When we cry, we release stress hormones and other chemicals that build up in response to emotional stress.
 
By shedding tears, we can “let go” of these emotions and reduce our feelings of distress.
 

Research on crying and emotional regulation

 
Several studies have supported the emotional release theory of crying.
 
For example, research has shown that people who cry during emotional situations tend to feel better afterward and have lower levels of stress hormones than those who do not cry.
 
Additionally, studies have found that crying can improve mood, reduce tension, and increase feelings of emotional closeness with others.
 

What’s the physiological function of tears?

closeup of a woman face with teary eyes
While emotional tears have garnered much attention for their role in emotional regulation, tears serve a wide range of physiological functions. Tears are essential for maintaining healthy eyes and protecting them from damage and infection.
 

Lubrication theory

 
One of the primary functions of tears is to lubricate the eye’s surface. Tears contain oils, water, and mucus that moisten the eye and prevent dryness.
 
This lubrication is vital for maintaining clear vision and avoiding damage to the cornea, which can occur if the eye becomes too dry.
 

Research on tears as a defense mechanism

 
Tears also defend against infection and foreign particles.
 
This defense is thanks to tears containing enzymes, antibodies, and other immune factors to help fight off bacteria and other pathogens that may enter the eye.
 
In addition to their immune function, tears also help protect the eye from foreign particles, such as dust and debris, that may enter the eye.
 
This protective function is critical for maintaining healthy vision and preventing injury to the eye.
 

What’s the social function of tears?

In addition to their emotional and physiological functions, tears also serve an important social role.
 
Tears can be a powerful tool for connecting with others, eliciting empathy and support, and strengthening social bonds.
 

Social bonding theory

 
The social bonding theory of tears suggests that crying evolved to strengthen social bonds and elicit support from others.
 
When we cry, we signal to others that we are distressed and need help or comfort.
 
This can trigger empathy and compassion in others, leading them to offer support and assistance.
 

Cross-cultural differences in crying behavior

 
While tears serve a similar social function across cultures, there are differences in how crying is perceived and expressed.
 
For example, some cultures may view crying as a sign of weakness, while others may view it as a sign of emotional strength.
 
There may also be differences in how often people cry and the situations that trigger crying.
 

How can culture and gender affect our crying behavior?

an elderly couple hugging while crying
Crying behavior can vary widely between genders and cultures. While there is no definitive answer to how much people of different genders or cultures cry, research has shown some broad patterns and differences.
 

Tears – men vs. women

 
On average, women cry more often than men. The variation in crying behavior between genders is partly attributed to biological factors such as hormone levels, but social and cultural norms also influence it.
 
Men are often socialized to suppress emotions, including crying, to demonstrate strength and emotional control.

 

Influence of cultural norms on crying behavior

 
Cultural norms also play a significant role in shaping crying behavior.
 
Some cultures view crying as a sign of weakness or vulnerability, while others view it as a natural and healthy expression of emotion.
 
In some cultures, crying is only acceptable in certain situations, such as during mourning or religious rituals.

 

Implications for mental health and well-being

 
These cultural and gender differences in crying behavior can have significant mental health and well-being implications.
 
Suppressing emotions and not allowing oneself to cry can lead to feelings of emotional numbness and detachment, as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and muscle tension.
 

Why we may cry too much

man crying while holding a piece of napkin
While crying is a natural and healthy expression of emotion, excessive crying can indicate an underlying medical condition. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, and grief can all lead to excessive crying, as can certain medical conditions such as hormonal imbalances or neurological disorders.
 

You may be depressed or suffer anxiety

 
Depression and anxiety are common medical conditions associated with excessive crying. They are symptoms of intense emotional distress triggered by minor stressors or events.
 
In severe cases, excessive crying may interfere with daily functioning and lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair.
 

Getting treatment may be necessary

 
If excessive crying interferes with daily life, seeking medical attention may be a good idea. Treatments for excessive crying may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both.
 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help individuals learn coping strategies for managing intense emotions and reduce the frequency and intensity of crying episodes.
 
Medications such as antidepressants may also help reduce excessive crying in some cases.
 

When to seek help for tears

 
It’s essential to seek medical attention if excessive crying interferes with daily functioning or causes significant distress.
 
Not only can medical treatment help reduce excessive crying, but it can also address underlying medical conditions contributing to the problem.
 
Early intervention in seeking help can lead to better treatment outcomes and prevent additional emotional and physical distress.
 
blonde woman crying while hugging her therapist
 

Tears are essential but we need to know why

Tears serve many functions, from lubricating and protecting the eye to releasing emotional tension and strengthening social bonds.
 
Emotional tears, in particular, can help us regulate our emotions, elicit empathy and support from others, and communicate our feelings.
 
Understanding crying behavior is crucial because it can help us better understand ourselves and others.
 
By recognizing the different functions of tears, we can learn to express our emotions healthily and strengthen our social connections.
 
Additionally, understanding the medical conditions associated with excessive crying can help individuals seek appropriate medical attention and effective treatment.
 
The next time you shed a tear, remember that it’s not just a personal or physiological experience–it’s also a social and emotional one.
 
We can cultivate greater emotional awareness and connection by embracing and understanding our tears.
 

References

  • “Why we cry”, American Psychological Association.
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  • “Is crying good for you?”, Harvard Health Publishing.
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  • “Facts About Tears”, American Academy of Ophthalmology.
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  • “Is crying a self-soothing behavior?”, National Center for Biotechnology Information.
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  • “Biochemistry, Tear Film”, National Library of Medicine.
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  • “Why Crying Improves Our Well-being: An Attachment-Theory Perspective on the Functions of Adult Crying”. Research Gate.
  •  

  • “Why might a person cry for no reason?”. Medical News Today.
Angie Garcia

Written by:

Angie Garcia

Angie is a Manila-based writer who specializes in wellness and lifestyle topics. She likes trying out new workouts and drinking coffee when not writing.