I recently came across some interesting research on how to enhance your crying jags. If you are grief-stricken from a recent loss it helps to know how to maximize the benefits of weeping.
William H. Frey II, a biochemist at the University of Minnesota, proposed that people feel better after crying due to the elimination of hormones associated with stress, specifically adrenocorticotropic hormone. This, paired with increased mucosal secretion during crying, could lead to a theory that crying is a mechanism developed in humans to dispose of this stress hormone when levels grow too high. But, there’s more to it than the mere release of hormones and mucous.
University of South Florida psychologists Jonathan Rottenberg and Lauren M. Bylsma, along with their colleague Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets of Tilburg University describe some of their recent findings about the psychology of crying in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The psychologists analyzed the detailed accounts of more than 3000 recent crying experiences (which occurred outside of the laboratory) and found that the benefits of crying depend entirely on the what, where and when of a particular crying episode. The majority of respondents reported improvements in their mood following a bout of crying. However, one third of the survey participants reported no improvement in mood and a tenth felt worse after crying. The survey also revealed that criers who received social support during their crying episode were the most likely to report improvements in mood.
Laboratory studies provided interesting findings about the physical effects of crying: Criers do show calming effects such as slower breathing, but they also experience a lot of unpleasant stress and arousal, including increased heart rate and sweating. What is interesting is that bodily calming usually lasts longer than the unpleasant arousal. The calming effects may occur later and overcome the stress reaction, which would account for why people tend to remember mostly the pleasant side of crying.
Research has shown that the effects of crying also depend on who is shedding the tears. For example, individuals with anxiety or mood disorders are least likely to experience the positive effects of crying. In addition, the researchers report that people who lack insight into their emotional lives (a condition known as alexithymia) actually feel worse after crying. The authors suggest that for these individuals, their lack of emotional insight may prevent the kind of cognitive change required for a sad experience to be transformed into something positive.
I find it fascinating that the benefits of crying increase if you have social support and insight. Again, proving that activities like keeping a journal and talking about one’s life really do lead to greater mental health. Let’s face it: bad things happen to all of us and sometimes we will cry a river. If we want to maximize the benefits of all those tears, grab a friend and figure out what exactly is going on your life. Insight may not always lead to change, but when it comes to crying it definitely helps.
Note: Eleven years after I wrote this the NY Times had a very short documentary on a Japanese “crying teacher” who also runs a crying cafe. Here’s the link: