Why do we cry?

Angela Zhang. 01/08/2021

A toddler cries in distress. (Parent 4 Success)

We usually associate crying with those who are vulnerable or those who are too helpless to help themselves. Babies and small children, who are notorious for bursting straight into tears whenever they are presented with any sort of upsetting situation, usually come to mind. But this is understandable—they cry to communicate since their limited capacity of language falls short. However, even when you’ve grown well past that age and you’re expected to solve your problems with words and actions instead of sitting and weeping about them, you might still find yourself sitting and weeping every now and then. The question today is why shedding tears is our bodies’ natural response to various events in our lives. What exactly makes human beings cry?

According to Jonathan Rottenberg, an emotion researcher and psychology professor at the University of South Florida, “crying signals to yourself and other people that there’s some important problem that is at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope.” Interestingly enough, there are many different tear-inducing problems you can face, and they will give rise to varying kinds of tears.

First, we have reflex tears, which are tears unrelated to emotion and induced when your body senses something is wrong in the environment. The lacrimal gland, located between the eyeball and the eyelid, will produce reflex tears to protect your eyes from threatening air particles like dust, smoke or most infamously: the stinging fumes of an onion. When you blink, the teardrop spreads across the surface of your eye and accumulates into a pool, which is when your eyes well up. Once too much liquid collects together, the pool overflows and sends tears trickling down your face, thereby washing out any irritants.

On the other hand, we have psychic tears. These are the kind caused by a surge of strong emotion, which could range anywhere from pure joy to utter devastation. You could shed psychic tears because you’re feeling stressed beyond comparison, because you’re overwhelmed with nostalgia, or even because your friend’s jokes are just way too hilarious. The reason why all of these unrelated situations produce the same tearful outcome is due to the work of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine links the autonomic nervous system, which is the neural system that you can’t control, to the lacrimal tear system. When your body undergoes a particularly emotional response to any kind of stimulus, your nervous system will release acetylcholine, which will then move to trigger tear production in the lacrimal apparatus.

This diagram of the lacrimal apparatus depicts the pathway of tear production. (Landa & Landa)

The noteworthy part of this process is the uncontrollability of its origin. Most people cry when they lose control over their emotions, when their bodies take over and react for them. This can often be because they encounter something that is out of their realm of control in the first place, and all they can do is succumb to an emotional response. But that begs the question, why crying as an emotional response? What will crying attain for us that no other bodily function can?

The answer brings us back to the very beginning of our discussion: crying for help. Regardless of whether you are a small child or a grown person, weeping makes you look vulnerable. Those watery eyes, woeful sniffles and dampened cheeks—all signs point to a guard that has fallen, which can in turn cast a very strong emotional effect on surrounding people. Most individuals tend to feel more sorry for those who are visibly crying, and as a result, they are more inclined to help those people. This idea is supported by a 2013 study held by Tilburg University in which participants were shown photographs of people with sad and neutral expressions with and without tears. In both rounds of the study, the participants showcased a higher perceived need for social support amid the people depicted with tears. This study indicates that tears do serve as a prominent visual cue for sadness and the need for outside care, and they help promote person-to-person connection.

Not to mention, scientists have found higher protein content in psychic tears than in reflex tears, which causes them to be thicker and stickier. This makes it more likely for people to notice them as they run slowly down your face, helping you procure any emotional support or comfort that you need.

Among these greater levels of proteins reside adrenocorticotropic hormones, which are associated with increased stress levels. Some scientists deduce that people cry to purge these stress-associated chemicals from their bodies and restore their bodies to an emotional balance. And although studies heretofore have not been fully conclusive, it’s widely accepted that turning on the waterworks can be a truly cathartic experience. You get to release all those bottled-up feelings through your tears, and it could feel like letting out one big sigh of relief. It’s also noteworthy that when you cry in response to physical pain, like stubbing your toe or getting a papercut, your body will release endorphins and oxytocin, which are feel-good natural chemicals that can help placate your discomfort and improve your mood.

The takeaway from all of this is that we cry to make ourselves feel better. This improved condition can be achieved through supportive interpersonal connection or through the act of crying itself as an inherently self-soothing procedure. Even though we cannot control how it begins, we can control what we get out of it, and that is healing.

Cover Photo: (WebMD)

Angela Zhang
Angela Zhang is a junior at Beckman High School. She is an aspiring storyteller who hopes to make a profound impression on her audience with her writing. She is also a passionate cactus enthusiast and has a soft spot for cheesy puns.