Does crying really make you feel better?

By Christian Jarrett

Psychologists have made surprisingly little progress in explaining why we cry. A popular idea is that crying is cathartic – that the tears of sadness wash away life’s woes like detritus carried off in the tide. This has been supported by retrospective surveys that ask people how they felt after previous bouts of crying. Lab studies, by contrast, which involve participants watching weepie movies, have found crying to have no such benefit. Both approaches, however, are seriously flawed. Findings from the retrospective approach are prone to memory distortion and people’s answers are likely influenced by the popular cathartic idea. Lab studies, meanwhile, suffer from a lack of realism.

A superior method is to have participants complete a daily crying diary for an extended period of time, to be completed each night – soon enough to reduce memory distortions, but not too intrusive to interfere with the behaviour under observation. Believe or not, just one diary study of crying has been conducted before. Now Lauren Bylsma and her colleagues have performed the second, involving 97 female undergrads who completed a crying diary, including questions about daily mood and crying context, for between 40 and 73 days. In all, 1004 crying episodes were documented, and all participants cried at least once. Most bouts of crying were triggered by conflict; the next most common reason was loss, followed by personal failing.

Bylsma’s headline finding is that crying mostly had little positive benefit, at least not on overall daily mood. Not only did crying episodes tend to be preceded by two days of lower daily mood, they were also associated with lower daily mood on the day of crying and lower daily mood on two successive days afterwards. For mood in the specific moments after a crying session, the results were more encouraging. Most often mood was reported as unchanged (60.8 per cent), but 30 per cent of sessions were associated with a positive mood change, with 8.8 per cent leading to a deterioration in mood.

Other findings included: more intense (but not longer) crying episodes were associated with more positive mood outcomes, as were crying episodes that followed a feeling of inadequacy and that triggered a positive change in the situation. Also, crying in the company of one other person was associated more often with positive mood change than was crying alone or crying in the company of multiple people. Conflict tears tended not to be associated with a positive mood change, undermining the idea that tears can defuse social tensions.

The study has its limitations – for example, the mood scale only had a three-point range, and of course it’s a shame that men weren’t included too. But even granted these limitations, the researchers emphasised that theirs was “the first extended examination of the relationship between crying and mood using detailed contextual information from multiple crying episodes and, as such, represents an important step towards understanding this striking human behaviour.”

Bylsma, L., Croon, M., Vingerhoets, A., and Rottenberg, J. (2011). When and for whom does crying improve mood? A daily diary study of 1004 crying episodes. Journal of Research in Personality, 45 (4), 385-392 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2011.04.007

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

9 thoughts on “Does crying really make you feel better?”

  1. This is definitely interesting! But I had two big thoughts when I was reading it – first, couldn't it simply be that people who do cry, despite not experiencing a boost of positive affect, are avoiding greater levels of negative affect? In other words, crying doesn't actively make them feel *better*, but it helps them avoid feeling *worse*? Kind of like the argument my mother always told me when I took Advil and my headache didn't go away: “Well, maybe if you hadn't taken it you'd be feeling even worse!” That sort of idea.

    Second of all, since I imagine people who cry frequently are different in many ways from those who don't, I'd be interested to see what happens when frequent criers are explicitly instructed to try *not* crying. The study says there's no real benefit to crying, but I imagine if someone is predisposed to cry as a response to an upsetting situation, making them suppress this emotional response would certainly have some consequences (I'd guess negative) that wouldn't be present in people who just naturally don't cry as frequently.

    Thank you for the post! It was a very interesting read.

  2. Depending on the culture, including men may be problematic.

    I cried several times during a divorce 7 years ago, and also when two of my grandparents died, in 1999 and 1994. Before that was during a breakup in 1991 and a friend's death in 1990. I can't recall any other incidents, except during childhood. Despite this infrequency, during these occasions I've felt as if I wasn't being as strong as society would expect of me.

    I don't know that this diary approach would work on men like myself. In fact, most men I know probably wouldn't have cried as often as I have.

  3. I agree Paul. I literally can't remember the last time I cried.

    Still, if this study is to be believed, at least we're not missing out on anything. An interesting follow up would be (and it'd also test the first commenter's criticism) to have the sample split into an experimental condition which abstains from crying and see how that affected their mood versus the control condition who wouldn't abstain from crying.

    This would still be flawed, obviously, because we can't ensure both conditions are under equal crying pressures such as stressors.

  4. yes sometime it does,, when you are feeling lots of pressure and there is no other way,, at that time you may feel crying and there are such many reason,, once you cry you always feel better,,i am serving many antiimpotence medicine to men and teach them to fight against life,, thanks for sharing,,

  5. Interesting article. I think that crying just sort of releases the welling top of sad feelings – and that makes you feel better, that you didn't hold it back. Just sort of relieving in a way – perhaps not necessarily happier, just not so bogged down or something.

  6. I'm the type of person that doesn't cry very much. I don't cry when I'm hurt (physically) and I don't cry.over things that are very drawn out. It has to be sudden. My very close friend passed away a year ago, we all knew he was sick but the realization of his passing was in fact very sudden. I cried for a week straight, but I haven't cried since. But one other reaction from crying that I didnt see in this article was feeling numb. It said something about feeling better feeling worse and feeling the same but not about feeling numb. After that week it was like I was all cried out. I didnt have any more emotion and I was numb for a long period of time.

  7. I think crying occurs when we emotionally overloaded. People can cry from excess elation or onerous negative burden. It's natural and it happens for an important physiological reason. One thing I'm sure of- sooner or later all those pent up bad emotions need an outlet. I would much rather have a good cry than do something I might regret later.

  8. Hey i think we cry to make us feel less guilty over not reacting. Like if something terrible happens to us and we feel very sad depressed negative and it doesnt lead to a physical reaction we may feel the need to act on those, not in order to solve the problem but well feel obligated at times to express our negative emotion. So we may do something we regret. But by crying there is no guilt for not acting upon your emotions because by crying you showed yourself that youve been affalected. If it wasnt for crying it could be more difficult to let things go and forgive and forget wed feel a need to let the felings out and through physicality perhaps acting out in an unproductive way or violence we actually show ourselves how bad we felt and then we can literally forget the incident and the emotions surrounding it much easier. The following days of lower mood are due to relieving guilt that comes from forgetting the incident. Otherwise youd never let it go. Then crying is also a form of body language. So people know your emotions cause you to need to relax. The human race existed before language alloud us to communicate so the crying informed others to help us and perhaps stop and rest. Even now it is difficult for many to get others to help them through theyre troubles and even telling someone about it doesnt garruntee they will understand what your feeling per say so crying is designed to help us survive in many ways but not to boost our mood. That could easily increase guilt over not being affected by the situation.

  9. I did some research with women talking about anger. Some women reported crying when angry but felt that it devalued their anger in the targets eyes. The women cried out of frustration rather than sadness. They also argued that if the target was male they felt more angry with themselves for 'allowing' the man to see them as 'weak' & not in control

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