Crying: It's the very first item on the to-do list of life. From there on out it's anyone's guess what will crank the waterworks. Some of us get weepy when we're sad or angry, others at the sight of an adorable puppy, the sound of the National Anthem, or watching a favorite rom-com for the umpteenth time. We all do it for different reasons, and some of us more than others, but we all know what it feels like to well up and burst out.
It's All Right to Cry: The Science of Letting It All Out
Many theories abound as to why, exactly, we cry. Some scientists see our bawling as a means of regulating arousal: A little blubbering slows down breathing, prompts us to seek comfort, and relieves stress (literally—emotional tears contain high concentrations of stress hormones as well as pain-killing endorphins!)
Crying is also an important tool of social communication, mobilizing emotional support, signaling surrender, distress, attachment to others, and group cohesion. “Human tears may blunt aggression and indicate submission to attackers,” says psychology professor and author of The Science of Emotion Randolph Cornelius, adding that it's "like the way dogs roll onto their bellies to say, 'okay, you’ve beaten me.'” Studies Human tears contain a chemosignal. Gelstein, S., Yeshurun, Y., Rozenkrantz, L., et al. Science, 2011; 331(6014): 226-30. have even demonstrated that the scent of women’s tears can reduce men’s testosterone levels and sexual desire.
It may come as no surprise that the more anxious and moody amongst us tend to cry more often. Extroverts experience more relief from crying than introverts, likely because the former feel more comfortable (read: less embarrassed) expressing themselves around others in general. And women tend to cry between two to four times as often as men—a result of biological factors (such as increased estrogen and prolactin) and social norms. (Intriguingly, however, the higher men’s self-esteem, the more likely they are to report that they cry. Researchers surmise that high self-esteem may buffer men from the “shame” of flouting gender stereotypes.)
Innocent Crystander? How to Tend to 8 Types of Tearjerkers
When comforting criers, psychologist Nancy Freeman-Carroll recommends trying to match the rhythm of a crier’s sobs with your own voice. “Making similar noises while rubbing or patting the person’s back can help bring their distress down—just like a mother’s empathetic oohs and ahhs matched to a baby’s cries soothe her child,” Freeman-Carroll says.
Averse to reaching out to a friend or stranger in tears? You’re not alone. Only 25% of adult study participants shown pictures of crying adults said they’d be likely to comfort the crier in question Age-related changes in the signal value of tears. Zeifman DM and Brown SA. Evolutionary Psychology. 2011 Aug 12;9(3):313-24. . (83% of subjects shown photos of crying babies, however, were inclined to help soothe.) Researchers believe this reflects our cultural denouncement of “weakness” in adulthood—a reflection of societal pressures to appear stronger for the sake of social cohesion.
We all have our own style when it comes to turning on the waterworks. We’ve taken a stab at rounding up all the kinds of criers out there, along with tips from experts on how to tend to criers in your presence.
1. The Public Crier
Many of us may take to the most non-private of areas to shed tears. It’s natural to want to help someone in obvious distress, Freeman-Carroll says. But unless the person is directly beseeching you for attention (eye contact = a legit invite) or you witness a clear emergency (think injuries, falls, or a frantic look on a lost child’s face), it may be best to acknowledge the public crier’s suffering, respect his or her personal space, and move on. A calm “Do you need help?” can suffice to clarify whether the crier is truly in need of support, Cornelius advises.
2. The Private Crier
Some of us prefer not to be seen while we weep—precisely because tears signal vulnerability. Fully expressing our physical or emotional pain can feel safer when others aren’t watching. Psychologist and psychiatry professor Irene S. Levine reminds us, “crying is usually a sign that someone is unable to express frustration, pent-up grief, or sadness with words.” If a person is isolating him or herself more than usual, reach out and ask if something more serious is going on. But give space where space is due and remember to be patient with reclusive tear-shedders.
3. The Loud Crier
Occasionally we unleash sobs with just a bit of gusto. Though cathartic, it’s important to be mindful that intense sounds of grief can be disturbing to others. Levine advises onlookers to focus on the root cause of crying rather than reactively hushing a vociferous emoter: “The emphasis should be on supporting and reassuring the person rather than confronting them about how they cry.” Calling out a loud crier in the heat of intense tears will only make things worse, Levine says. So wait until they’re in a calmer state to alert them that their wails may be triggering. (But don’t forget to be sensitive to why they burst into tears in the first place.)
4. The Drunk Crier
Relaxed inhibitions following a few drinks can sometimes invite emotional outpourings An Examination of Depressive Symptoms And Drinking Patterns In First Year College Students. Geisner, I.M., Mallett, K., & Kilmer, J.R. University of Washington, Seattle. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 2012; 33(5): 280-287. . Inebriated tears may be more voluminous than we'd shed without alcohol’s “assistance,” but they’re still representations of what we feel in the moment. Comforting a drunk crier can be simple: Cut them off, offer a shoulder to sob on (as well as some water—and possibly… food?). But do be wary of drinkers who can become violent Effects of alcohol and instigator intent on human aggression. Zeichner, A. & Pihl, R.O. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 1980; 41(3): 265-276. . If the crying continues after “sleeping it off”—and especially if it relates to feeling out of control while drinking—talk to your friend about finding a support group or a therapist to shed more light on what’s driving them overboard.
5. The Crying-for-No-Reason Crier
Consistently weeping without obvious cause may be a sign of a psychological problem such as personality disturbances or depression Major depressive disorder symptoms in male and female young adults. Lopez, M., Jansen, K., Drews, C. et al. Universidade Católica de Pelotas, Pelotas, Brazil. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 2014; 19(2): 136-145. . Constant tears may also indicate a person is suffering from a traumatic experience. Caringly approach this type and ask what’s going on, Levine recommends. Offer an ear and be an ally in their search for professional help. But leave the diagnosing to the mental health experts—whom you can find via Psych Central, Good Therapy, Psychology Today, or a referral from a primary care physician.
6. The Post-Coital Crier
Sex involves a rapid spike and then subsequent drop in arousal levels, Cornelius says. Not only is the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system seeking renewed equilibrium following a roll in the hay, but “sex can be a powerful affirmation of the bond between two people—and emotional bonds are the root of many crying episodes.” Sharing intense, physically intimate moments with someone is the epitome of interpersonal connection, with tears simply illustrating the experience’s emotional intensity.
“Post-coital tears may also crop up for additional reasons—not just ecstasy, but pain and regret too,” Levine adds. Hence why it’s crucial to empathetically inquire what’s causing your partner to cry and to comfort them accordingly, rather than seeking the nearest exit once the main action’s over.
7. The Happy Crier
Most of us can recall a time when we’ve shed tears of joy. From weddings, new babies, and birthday surprises to watching our favorite sports team or political candidate win, crying may result from a rapid upswing in positive feelings, Cornelius says. Joyous crying isn’t a cause for concern but rather an invitation to share in the pleasure of an emotionally significant moment.
8. The Manipulative Crier
Though rarer in adults (infants and toddlers are the more common culprits here) some of us use tears to get things we want Changes in the affect of infants before and after episodes of crying. Nakayama, H. University of the Sacred Heart, Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Infiant Behavior & Development, 2013; 36(4): 507-512. Tactics of manipulation. Buss, D.M., Gomes, M., Higgins, D.S., et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1987; 52(6):1219-1229. . That’s not to say we don’t legitimately feel sad, scared, or humiliated when we well up. (Think: The student who cries in the professor’s office upon learning their grades are lower than they’d like.) So acknowledge a crier’s emotional pain until their eyes are dry, but do hold them to owed apologies or request that they rectify their behavior.
Crying (in all its iterations) cleans out both our sinuses as well as our souls—all while communicating our emotional state to others and illustrating the intensity of our inward experiences. We all have our personal preferences for how, where, and when we’d like to do it. So be sensitive and respectful in the presence of a tearful friend or stranger, let it out when you can, and don’t forget to bring tissues!