cry time

Why Do We Cry to Express Feeling Overwhelmed?

Why, though? Photo: Ezra Bailey/Getty Images

There are lots of good reasons to weep: You have just watched the first ten minutes of Up; you have awoken from a “restorative” nap after scratching the heck out of your cornea to discover your eye may now be in the process of decamping from its socket; you are cutting a particularly sharp onion; you are a sentient being in the year 2020. All manner of things can cue crying — see: fear, sorrow, anger, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, happiness, relief, pain, especially pungent alliums — but your question, I am guessing, is why do we cry when our bodies could just as easily manifest our emotions through heavy sweating or maniacal laughter?

Apparently, science has not reached an agreement on this score. But we can discuss some educated guesses.

There are a few plausible theories that might explain why we cry.

Babies, of course, cry when they want something from their larger and more capable caretakers: puréed carrots, for example, or a diaper change. But the fact that this behavior carries on into adulthood has baffled researchers. Some theorize that tears tell predators and aggressors that the crying party is vulnerable and presents no threat. But in less antagonistic situations, crying could simply serve as a reflexive call for aid, letting others know we have exceeded capacity.

“When other animals grow old, most no longer emit distress signals, presumably because it is too dangerous,” Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets, a decades-long cry querent, told the Guardian. “By contrast, in humans there is a shift from the acoustic signal, emitted in all directions, toward the visual signal of tears, which especially fit closer, more intimate interactions.”

So maybe tears are not so much about sending a message to predators as they are about underscoring the dynamics of an interpersonal scenario and soliciting sympathy. “Crying signals to yourself and other people that there’s some important problem that is at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope,” Jonathan Rottenberg, an emotion researcher and professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, told Time.

Some researchers suspect that crying helps us bond and cement emotional connection.

Watching someone cry could set off an empathic neurological response in the witness, fostering bonding and connection. Crying, as Vingerhoets previously told the Cut, “is very effective to solicit care and attention and comfort from others.” A 2016 study of his bears this out: Confronted with visibly crying people, subjects perceived them as more friendly and felt greater interpersonal connection, which in turn made them more willing to help weepers over dry-eyed participants.

Unfortunately, though, Rottenberg noted that the manipulative among us may leverage that expectation of compassion for their own ends. “We learn early on that crying has this really powerful effect on other people,” he added. “It can neutralize anger very powerfully,” and crocodile tears can therefore prove useful in getting out of something or deflecting — or deciding — the viewer’s anticipated reaction. “Adults like to think they’re beyond that,” Rottenberg noted, “but I think a lot of the same functions carry forth.”

Others have suggested that crying may make us feel better, which might explain why we cry alone.

But in each of those explanations, tears serve as a symbol for others, a phenomenon that does not explain why we cry alone. Certainly, there are situations in which many people won’t want to show outward vulnerability — not wanting to weep in the middle of your office, in front of your co-workers, comes to mind — and will take steps to hide the signs, but what about those times when you’re sitting alone in your room and find yourself unraveled by an upsetting viral video, let’s say? No one else is around and yet you are involuntarily bawling your eyes out.

Interestingly, emotional tears are chemically distinct from basal (the natural lubrication that protects your eyes from dirt and debris) and reflexive tears (tears sparked by external stimuli, like onion smells or smoke). They include higher levels of leucine-enkephalin, an endorphin that functions as a natural pain reliever, improving mood and mitigating stress. Meanwhile, shedding tears may also release oxytocin, a feel-good hormone — it’s possible that the chemistry of crying does actually make people feel a little better. Then again, it’s equally possible that it doesn’t: The supporting research simply does not exist, according to Time.

None of which accounts for why some people do not cry.

Some people, and maybe you have met them, or maybe you are one of them, firmly insist that they never cry or cry only very rarely. Emotional tears are simply not a function for them, no matter how sad the situation. Science does not know precisely why this is, having focused inconclusive crying research efforts on the puzzling existence of emotional tears, not lack thereof. Certain medications — hormonal birth control, antidepressants — and medical conditions, like depression, may contribute to dry eyes.

But if you can’t cry, don’t fret: As Vingerhoets told the Cut, crying isn’t the only way to elicit support from, and connect with, other people. Those who don’t cry easily, he said, will likely come up with other means to communicate their emotional distress. According to Vingerhoets, it is probably futile to try to teach yourself how to cry, or how to cry less, although there are ways you can make yourself cease with the waterworks during inconvenient moments. Crying is simply a thing that happens, or doesn’t, for reasons known only to our tear ducts. One of the many mysteries of life.

Why Do We Cry? A Few Explanations for Emotional Tears