Let it Go: The Science of Crying

The Time Traveller’s Wife; The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 1 & 2; Stepmom; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; (specifically the part when Hermione says, “Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it.”)”these are my crying movies. Appropriately named, my crying movies are the movies I watch while cradling a large glass of red wine, with my kitten forcibly within petting distance, on days when I’m feeling particularly pent up. A few months ago, following a breakup with my boyfriend of several years, I watched all five of the aforementioned movies, in addition to a predetermined roster of Jim and Pam scenes from The Office. I did it for the tears, of course.

Crying is my jam. Not by choice, of course, but over the years I have learned to own my tears, as frequently and freely as they come. I am the girl who drinks two beers at a party and starts bawling over something that happened three months ago. I have cried in clubs, I have cried on the subway, I have cried at work, I have cried walking home from work, and I have cried in line for candy canes at the mall. (In my defense, I was five and they were running out of the jumbo strawberry-flavoured canes, okay!)

So why do I cry? Why does anybody cry?

For the most part, our tears ultimately serve a very practical purpose. They lubricate our eyeballs and prevent the dehydration of our mucous membranes, plus they contain a fluid called lysozyme, which kills bacteria with such gusto”(up to 95 percent in just five to 10 minutes!)”that it puts Purell to damn shame.

Much like coffee and dry shampoo, not all tears are created equal. There are three known types of tears: basil (or continuous), reflex and emotional. Basil tears are produced on a constant basis and are what keep our eyes from drying out, making them responsible for our vision. The second type, reflex tears, are produced as a defense to external irritants like dust, smoke or your boss’s really bad breath. The third and most illusive of the bunch are emotional tears. It is believed that emotional tears are the body’s way of getting rid of hormones and toxins that are produced when we are in emotional duress. Some studies even suggest that crying profusely triggers the release of those oh-so-coveted endorphins we also get from physical activity.

There are a few theories as to why we tend to feel better after a good cry. Of course, there’s the excretion of those stress hormones and toxins, but prominent theories also indicate that the real reason we find catharsis in our tears is likely situationally based. Crying with other people can serve as a means of social bonding, a way to garner acceptance from our friends and peers, and ultimately a way to strengthen and cement important relationships.

It is believed that humans are the only animals that cry tears of sadness, but contrary to common belief, this fact does not necessarily indicate weakness. When we are young we cry as a way to alert the grownups that something is wrong and, as we age, our tears continue to be a method of communication. For instance, we might cry at a wedding to express that we are touched deeply, or tear up at the news of someone we care about experiencing pain as a way to convey our empathy. Sometimes the tears come when words just don’t cut it.

So next time you feel that weepiness rising in your chest, don’t suppress it; own your sobs! Emotional crying is a universal and uniquely human way of expression and much like a sneeze it’s not meant to be stifled.

Tags: crying, crying movies, the science of crying, Wellness

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