Why Do We Cry?

Story at a Glance.

  • There are three types of tears.
  • Psychic tears, the ones we use when we cry, have an inbuilt painkiller.
  • Tears also release the chemical build-up of stress and toxins related to stress.

It’s not just for babies, we all do it. Some of us do it more than others, some of us stay strong and refuse to do it unless under formidable circumstances. Women do it more than men, on average 50 times a year, compared to the stalwart male who on average only cries 10 times a year. Children do it when they don’t get what they want, babies do it at ungodly hours of the night. We do it when we are deeply moved, sad, grieving, desolate or unhappy but we also do it through pure joy, through feeling loved and during sentimental moments.  Crying, like Hallmark Cards, are pretty much on hand for any occasion.

But why do we cry? What’s the point?

Well you’ll be interested to know that there are in fact three different types of tears.

  1. The perfunctory tear – technically referred to as the Basil Tear. That’s the one you use to moisten your eyes so your eyeball doesn’t shrivel up.
  2. The Reflex Tear, this one is the worker tear, it’s got a job to do, it’s the one that turns up when you get grit in your eye and you need some tears to flush it away
  3. And thirdly, the Psychic Tear, that’s the one that wells up when you’re feeling overwhelmed and unloved and just not sure where to go next.

Without going into too much detail, the first two types of tears are biologically required to keep your eyeball in good shape. As the tears flush across the eye, they drain-off into the lacrimal punctum. Think of it as a drain for tears much like a sink hole. But when you have a good cry and the drain fills up, your tears spill up over your lower eyelid and then trickle down your cheeks. It’s nature’s way of providing a spillway when the drain overflows.

It’s the third type of tear, the psychic tear that we are looking at today. the one we use when we cry. Unlike the other two, it produces a painkiller, called leucine enkephalin. This may explain why we feel better after having a good cry. We also produce endorphins when we cry. Another feel-good reason we experience after crying.

But it appears that psychic tears have other health benefits too.

Biochemist Dr William Frey from the Ramsey Medical Centre at The University of Minneapolis says in his study (1) that tears also secret stress hormones and other toxins that build up whilst we are under stress. The more we cry, the more we release the chemical attributes of stress.

”Crying is an exocrine process,” Dr. Frey explains, ”that is, a process in which a substance comes out of the body. Other exocrine processes, like exhaling, urinating, defecating and sweating, release toxic substances from the body. There’s every reason to think crying does the same, releasing chemicals that the body produces in response to stress.”

Dr Frey believes it’s important to know why it is we cry and conversely what model we are culturally exposed to in regards to what is socially acceptable in regards to crying. This is no more prevalent than amongst men who are socially encouraged to be brave and not cry. But whilst men are busy keeping a stiff upper lip they may well be doing themselves a disservice with their health.

”Not only do men cry less often than women but their crying is also less obvious,” Dr. Frey remarked. ”In our society men in particular are discouraged from crying. If crying reduced the effect of stress, by suppressing tears we may be increasing our susceptibility to stress-related disorders.”

It might be well overdue that we stop telling men and boys that it’s inappropriate to cry. Dr. Frey believes it doesn’t bode well for well-meaning reprimands like ”big boys don’t cry” or platitudes such as ”now, now, don’t cry.”

”We should comfort people without telling them to stop crying,” Dr. Frey observed. ”They do stop crying when they’re comforted.”

Which brings us back to the health benefits of crying. Not only do we feel better for doing it, we are reducing the levels of stress build-up from our bodies. So the next time you’re brought to tears, let ’em loose. Not only will you feel better at the end of it, you’ll have done your health the world of good too.


[1] Frey WH 2nd, DeSota-Johnson D, Hoffman C, McCall JT., “Effect of stimulus on the chemical composition of human tears,” American Journal of Ophthalmology, 92:559-567, 1981.

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