What does crying do for you?

Nearly all of us cry sometimes. But what makes us cry, how often we do it, and how it makes us feel varies hugely from person to person. According to Jonathan Rottenberg and colleagues, crying in general, and particularly how crying makes us feel, are surprisingly under-researched aspects of human behaviour.

Rottenberg’s team asked 196 adult Dutch women (aged between 17 and 84 years) to answer questions about their personalities, their mental health, their propensity for crying and how crying made them feel.

Consistent with past research, people who reported being more neurotic, extravert and/or empathic tended to cry more often and more easily. The research was correlational, so it’s not clear if having these personality types leads to more crying, or if crying more contributes to these personality types. Perhaps surprisingly, mental health, in terms of reported depression, anxiety and so forth, was not associated with how often or easily people said they cried.

When it came to the effects of crying, the pattern was the other way round. Aspects of personality were not associated with how the participants said crying made them feel, but mental health was. While the majority of the participants (88.8 per cent) said that crying brought them relief, a minority, especially those with depression, anxiety, anhedonia (a loss of the ability to experience pleasure), and/or alexithymia (a difficulty expressing or processing emotions), said that crying left them feeling worse or just the same.

The researchers said more work was needed to find out why crying brings relief to some people but not others. “Currently there is only anecdotal evidence that learning how to cry and how to derive positive effects from it could help people who are having difficulty expressing sadness or crying,” they wrote.

J ROTTENBERG, L BYLSMA, V WOLVIN, A VINGERHOETS (2008). Tears of sorrow, tears of joy: An individual differences approach to crying in Dutch females Personality and Individual Differences, 45 (5), 367-372 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.05.006

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest and the author of a forthcoming book on personality change


3 thoughts on “What does crying do for you?”

  1. Good day to you,
    As someone who had a horrific childhood, I was a total wreck by the time I was fifteen years old. I left home at age 16 plus and tried to find some sanity for myself by reading, since only my intellectual faculties were working a little bit. My cognitive skills and feelings were severely suppressed.

    I battled through many books, visited many psychiatrists before I finally discovered Dr. Arthur Janov's book The Primal Scream. I live in South Africa and was fortunate to find someone who helped me to get there and to pay for therapy.

    Almost from the first session with a highly skilled therapist, I started crying, wailing deeply, doing so for almost two hours at a time.
    I would often cry like that, four or five times
    a day. I also experienced massive anger that came up like a wave from the very depths of my being. The therapy was gentle, but powerful. I was kept safe at all times. I did not experiece any out-of-sequence pain that was not ready to come up.

    Over time, I felt my pain leave me. Today, thirty years later, I consider myself to be a balanced person, more in touch with my feelings, allowing myself to be vulnerable. I can cry when necessary and I now run a manufacturing business of my own, something I would not have been capable of before therapy.

    In writing this I only wish to share my experience with others who may be in a similar situation. Crying (and connecting with hurts and traumas) is of paramount importance to humans. We cry in order to release pain overload. Compare all the psychological mumbo-jumbo with the simple fact that people mourn and grieve for months on end after the death of a loved one. Do we really need to ask why we cry and do all sorts of clinical testing around it? We are humans, not machines. We have feelings and emotions. Let them happen. PAT VAN NIEKERK.

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