This Is What Happens to Your Body (And Mind) When You Cry

From stress release to emotional bonding.

Updated 09/20/19

 Stocksy

Did you know that there are actually three different types of tears? Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but until a random bout of tears (otherwise known as my quarter-life crisis) led me down a Google rabbit-hole the other day, I had no idea.

First, there are basal (also called continuous) tears, which help keep our eyes hydrated and in turn help us to see clearly. Then, there are reflex tears, which are usually sudden and provoked in response to some sort of immediate irritation, like chopping an onion or getting makeup in your eye. Finally, there are the tears we all know well: Emotional, or psychic, tears. Whether in response to sadness, anger, or even pure bliss, emotional tears are a uniquely human experience. It is a physical way in which we all show and process our emotions, both happy and sad.

Another thing I didn’t realize is that the composition of each type of tear is different. For example, reflex tears are almost all water—but emotional tears actually contain certain hormones, which your body naturally secretes in times of stress in order to help restore balance. In other words, there’s real science to back up that feeling of a weight being lifted off your shoulders after a good cry. How incredible is that? Here, we asked experts to breakdown some of the health benefits of crying it out. 

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Crying helps release stress hormones from the body

On a physical level, emotional tears help relax the body and allow it to release stress. When we shed tears of the emotional variety, we are quite literally expelling stress hormones and other toxins from our body, which promotes a feeling of release and calm. In fact, scientists are finding that emotional tears actually contain additional hormones and proteins that aren’t found in the other two types of tears at all. While research is still ongoing (you can imagine how difficult it is to conduct a valid study when commanding people to cry for emotional reasons), all you need to know is this: “Emotional tears help to release stress hormones from the body when we are upset,” explains Judith Orloff, MD. “Typically, after crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter into a calmer biological and emotional state.”

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Crying helps us process our emotions and ultimately, heal

“We cry when we are upset because it is our body’s way of processing and releasing stress,” Orloff explains. “You don’t want intense emotions to build up in your body—such as anger, depression or grief—[and] crying helps you heal and process these emotions.” If you’ve ever repressed your emotions for too long (probably because of societal stigma), then you know how terrible it feels when everything eventually, and inevitably, boils over. “You don’t want to hold tears back. Crying makes us feel better, even when a problem persists,” she continues. “In addition to physical detoxification, emotional tears heal the heart.”

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Crying releases endorphins in the body

At the same time that stress hormones are being expelled from the body, other feel-good hormones are being released inside of it. These include oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, which helps us feel connected to others, explains Ashley Brissette, an ophthalmologist based in New York City. After a bout of crying, endorphins—the body’s natural pain reliever, also called the bliss hormone—are also stimulated and released within the body. This is part of the reason why a vigorous crying session “can be exertional, almost like a workout,” Brissette says. “It helps to dissipate energy.” According to the American Academy of Opthalmology, emotional tears also contain higher levels of Leu-enkephalin, an endorphin that helps mitigate pain and improve mood. 

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Crying helps us bond with others

You might think that bursting into tears would push someone away, but on the contrary, experts say that crying’s very function is actually to bring us closer together. “Crying helps us to bond interpersonally and acts as a way to non-verbally communicate with others,” Brissette explains. “Among all the theories about why humans cry, the most widely accepted is that it is a way to enhance our ability to communicate at an advanced level. It helps us communicate our desire for help, connection, or share in moment with others, whether sadness or joy.”

 

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