Is crying good for you?

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It is a widespread belief in the western world that crying is therapeutic and also the converse, that failure to cry is a danger to our health.  Randolph Cornelius (1986) systematically analysed the content of popular articles on weeping in the press from 1850 to 1985 and found a major theme was that crying was considered an important means of releasing physiological tensions; if it wasn’t released, it would find an outlet in some other way, such as affecting the person’s body and possibly causing disease.  94% of articles recommended letting tears flow.

Psychotherapists and counsellors from nearly every school or persuasion regard crying during the process of therapy as constructive rather than destructive, though there may be some exceptions to this general rule such as depression, some neuropsychological conditions and manipulative crying.  Sometimes a patient enters the therapy office for the first session and may cry with relief within minutes in the presence of the therapist, who is effectively a total stranger.  Often patients who cry during sessions whilst talking about subjects of crucial emotional importance to them, spontaneously say how much better they feel or may report in the next session how they were upset at the time but felt much better afterwards.  Whereas in normal life people may try to steer others away from crying, in therapy the psychologist often steers into crying.

From a biological perspective three kinds of tears are distinguished (Lutz 1999); “Basal tears” are continuous and lubricate our eyes; “reflex or infant tears” occur when we chop onions or receive a blow to the eye; “emotional tears” are psychologically caused.  Frey, Desota-Johnson, Hoffman & McCall (1981) present experimental evidence of the difference between the biochemical composition of emotional tears compared to irritant tears.  The protein concentration of emotional tears was 24% greater than irritant tears.  The complex proteins in emotional tears were those involved in the human stress response.  Frey et al proposed that tears performed a sort of physical catharsis, expelling toxins from the body.

A type of physiological catharsis was proposed by Efran & Spangler (1979).  Following a period of sympathetic nervous system hyperactivity, crying is part of a parasympathetic rebound effect in which tears serve to discharge arousal. 

Cornelius went on to conduct research into whether the belief in the value of tears was justified.  In his review of the literature on crying and catharsis (Cornelius 2001) we are left more perplexed than before.  When people are asked in interview (Cornelius 1981), questionnaire (Lombardo et al 1983) or through diary keeping (Frey 1983, Kraemer & Hastrup 1986), they report feeling relieved, more relaxed or in a better mood after crying.  This held over a 29 nation study of crying (Vingerhoets & Becht 1997).  However, when Cornelius reviewed experimental studies of crying, which usually take the form of showing a sad movie and taking measures of crying and mood, something different was found.  There is very little evidence of physiological or mood benefits after weeping, sometimes the reverse.

So there is a dilemma – people universally report crying is beneficial but the laboratory says something different.  Perhaps this simply reflects the difference between the laboratory and real life.  The laboratory requires experimental stimuli that are objectively similar for all subjects and the ‘weepie’ movie is ideal.  Stimuli need to be applied within a controlled time and place.  In real life the stresses are personally meaningful and build up over days, weeks, months or sometimes years.  They spontaneously come to a head; the person cries.  This natural and personalised event is difficult to capture and study and the laboratory may simply be failing to come to grips with ‘the real thing’.

On the other hand, it has been suggested that during crying the person experiences raised levels of physiological arousal.  When the arousal returns to previous levels, it is experienced as feeling better (Kraemer & Hastrup 1988).  In other words, the person does not really feel better but only feels better by a sort of ‘contrast effect’ with their distress during crying.  In this scenarios all the self report interviews could be nothing more than self delusion.

So is crying good for you? – as long as you don’t do it in the laboratory.