Why crying is good for your health, but too much could be a sign of deeper problems
Crying is known to have a soothing effect and ‘emotional tears’ can even help rid our bodies of stress hormones. Some organisations are now going so far as to open crying rooms for their staff and visitors for them to have good wail
Crying is not just a natural emotional expression; it is also a healthy one, with tremendous therapeutic benefits. But if it gets out of hand, it might indicate a serious underlying problem.
Few would admit to enjoying shedding a few tears when they are angry, sad or stressed, but crying when we’re emotional about something usually makes us feel better afterwards.
According to Dr Jackie Chan, a clinical psychologist at the Hong Kong Psychological Counselling Centre in Mong Kok, crying is emotionally cathartic.
“It does have a soothing and relaxing effect,” he explains. “When we cry, our heart rate and breathing slow down a little and we start to calm down. We might even experience a mood boost after a good cry. Crying is useful for helping people release and express their suppressed or repressed emotions.”
There are a few studies that appear to support the emotional and physiological benefits of crying. In his well-known 1981 study, “tear expert” Dr William Frey, a biochemist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, found that emotional tears – those shed in response to an emotion – contain stress hormones and other chemicals that build up in the body while we are under stress, and help to rid us of them. His research was published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology.
Frey also noted that crying releases endorphins or “happy hormones” – chemicals produced by our brain that are thought to promote feelings of well-being – although Chan says more research is still needed to confirm this.
Another study found that crying might have a self-soothing effect because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us relax. The results were presented in 2014 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
In a 2008 study of more than 3,000 crying experiences, researchers at the University of South Florida found that most people feel better after a cry, and suggested that crying be used as therapy for people who have difficulty expressing their emotions. The research was shared in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Some schools, businesses and even government organisations are starting to recognise the benefits of a good cry. In January this year, police in Nottinghamshire in Britain opened “crying rooms” for its female officers and staff who were going through menopause and needed to let it all out (crying as a result of mood changes is often associated with menopause).
In April, a “Cry Closet” was installed in the library of the University of Utah in the US. The small, white, closet-like enclosure was set up for students studying for their final exams and who needed a safe space to release their stress.
Yoga studios are generally considered places of calm, but many yogis admit to literally bawling while on the mat. While yoga helps to relieve stress, it can also trigger certain unexpected emotions, leaving some practitioners with tears streaming down their faces during or after a session.
“As they work to understand and connect with themselves, it’s not unusual for my clients to cry during my yoga retreats and workshops,” says Uriel Yariv, a yoga teacher and co-founder and director of Mahasiddha Yoga in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“As they connect with their bodies and emotions, they can’t help but allow the tears to fall,” Yariv says. “Crying helps them let go of their painful experiences, past traumas and tension. It’s therapeutic, and [after] they usually report feeling lighter and freer on the inside, stronger and more energised.”
Crying is surrounded by social stigma, with many associating it with weakness. Chan, however, says that if you feel emotional and want to cry, it is best to let it all out rather than holding it back.
“Crying can be helpful in some situations, but remember that it’s only a means for you to express your feelings, be it anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration or grief,” he says. “It doesn’t actually get to the root of whatever you’re feeling. So my advice is to cry if you have to, but you must also learn how to deal with the emotions that have triggered the crying in the first place and try to get in touch with them.”
While crying is also associated with vulnerability, Chan says there is nothing wrong with feeling or coming across as such; vulnerability, he explains, increases self-worth and invites you to be more honest with yourself. It also breeds intimacy with others and cultivates courage and compassion.
Of course, crying can get out of hand. If you find yourself crying all the time or for no real reason, then it might indicate a serious underlying problem, such as depression.
“Crying continuously because you feel helpless or overwhelmingly sad, or crying without knowing why you’re crying, is not healthy,” Chan says. “If this goes on for two weeks or longer, or if your crying episodes are interfering with some aspect of your life, like your job or relationships, then it might be a good idea to get professional help to work through those underlying emotions.”