Crying is generally associated with negative emotions like being sad or frustrated, making this natural emotional state something that many people try to avoid or suppress. Yet a new study published in the journal Emotion, which sought to better understand the physiological function of shedding tears, suggests that crying may actually be kind of good for you. Specifically, it turns out that shedding tears may support the regulation of breathing during a stressful event.
In the study, the researchers started from the hypothesis that crying facilitates coping and recovery through physiological changes.
“We became interested in this topic when trying to understand the different possible ways that crying might function to help us, and to try to get a different perspective on why crying is so widely associated with feeling better,” one of the study’s authors, Leah Sharman of the University of Queensland, told Psypost.
Sharman added that crying was previously thought to get rid of toxins, or help humans deal with stressful situations, which led them to testing the idea. Researchers randomly assigned 197 undergraduate students to watch either sad or emotionally neutral videos for 17 minutes. About half of those who watched the sad videos ended up crying. All of the students then participated in the Cold Pressor Stress Test, which is when you place your hand in nearly freezing cold water. Researchers monitored their heart and respiration activity during this stress test, and also took saliva samples during this test to measure cortisol levels.
Researchers were surprised when they found that those who cried were not better able to cope with the stress test than those who did not cry. There was also no difference in cortisol levels between both groups, too. However, they did come across an unexpected finding: evidence that participants who cried were better able to regulate their breathing.
“Firstly, crying doesn’t seem to provide any change to stress hormones or our ability to cope with physical stressors to a degree that might be meaningful if you hurt yourself. Secondly, and what was our main finding, is that crying seems to assist in keeping our body stable and calm by slowing down and regulating our breathing and our heart rate,” Sharman told PsyPost.
However, there are some limitations to the findings.
“The major caveat with this research is that we don’t know if these reactions are typical in real-world settings where you might be crying because of grief or loss, for example, or if there are differences if someone else is present with you when you cry,” Sharman said. “It’s also important to note that because of the nature of this research we can’t force people to cry, so it’s also possible that there might be something different about people who are more likely to cry, especially in a laboratory setting, that makes them more likely to respond in this way.”