If you've ever had a good cry and instantly felt better, there's a proven science behind the phenomenon. Not only can crying help you feel better mentally and emotionally, there are a number of unexpected physical benefits of crying as well. While excessive crying can be a sign of depression, anxiety, or certain neurological conditions, a good cry (on occasion) can be an important way to refresh our minds and bodies. Here's why.
Crying benefits our eyes.
In order to understand how crying benefits our eyes, it's important to know how different types of tears work and their roles in protecting our ocular health. Our eyes actually produce three types of tears. The first type are basal secretion tears, which our eyes regularly create to keep themselves nourished, clean, and free of bacteria. These are generally always present.
The second type of tears our eyes produce are reflex tears, which are reflex-like responses to things like smoke, particles in our eyes, and other irritants. One of the best examples of how reflex tears work is tearing up in response to cutting an onion or handling powerful spices.
The third type are emotional tears, which are produced in response to emotions. "Emotional tears are unique in that they contain proteins and hormones not found in basal secretion or reflex tears," explains board-certified ophthalmologist Diane Hilal-Campo, MD. "These 'additives' can have relaxing or pain-relieving properties that help regulate the body and return it to its prior state."
Dr. Hilal-Campo also says crying helps rehydrate the eyes, which can improve vision overall. Plus, tears have the power to kill bacteria. "Tears are cleansing and help remove the potentially damaging irritants that your eyes are exposed to daily," she describes. "Tears are 98 percent water, but also contain salt, fatty oils, and 1,500 different proteins, as well as an antibacterial chemical known as lysozyme that helps fight off infections."
In a nutshell, tears are essential to the health of our eyes. Board-certified opthamologist Yuna Rapoport, MD, MPH, also adds that working from home can cause an increase in dry eyes, making healthy tears more important than ever. "Crying is actually quite good for our eyes, especially dry eyes," she says. "We all have a level of dry eyes right now, given that our blink rate is significantly reduced when we're on our computers [working or learning remotely]."
Crying is emotionally cathartic.
Crying is a natural way to show or release emotions. We can cry from sadness, anger, or joy, among other feelings. Historically, research points to crying having a cathartic effect that can bring us relief. Theories also suggest that inhibition of expression, or not crying, can promote the development of mental health problems and even illness, according to some studies.
"Have you ever heard the term 'big girls or boys don't cry'? The truth is that all humans can benefit from a good cry," explains mental health counselor Kelly Houseman, MS, LPC, NCC. "We are not meant to hold things in, pretend we have it all together, and fake our way through life. Just like a boiling pot on a stove with a lid on, these emotions have to come out."
Studies show that strong emotions, like crying, can be a result of excessive emotional energy that tears actually help release. Findings lean towards crying having the power to diminish tension or negative feelings, regardless of whether or not the source of stress has been removed.
"A good cry is a cathartic release and often results in feeling lighter and having greater clarity when it's done," Houseman says. "It's also a way to connect with humanity and helps with empathy. Everyone deals with heavy emotions and sometimes a good cry is the perfect way to process them."
Crying is normal in healthy amounts—but what is a healthy amount?
Though there are no hard numbers as to how often we should actually cry, the American Psychological Association, or APA, states that women cry emotional tears 30 to 64 times per year on average, while men cry emotional tears 5 to 17 times per year on average. This means women may cry several times a month, while men may cry once a month or every other month. So, if you fall into that range, you're likely crying a healthy amount. However, how much you cry will ultimately depend on your personality or the life circumstances that you're dealing with.
However, excessive crying can be a key sign or symptom of mood disorders like depression or anxiety. Some neurological states that result from injuries or brain disturbances can lead to a condition called pseudobulbar affect, or PBA. In this involuntary neurological state, people may experience uncontrollable laughing or crying as a result.
If you're crying excessively, it's essential to seek help. Contact your doctor to discuss your concerns and to talk about treatment plans that may be right for you. Otherwise, if you're crying a "normal" or typical amount, that's a good thing and very healthy for you. So go ahead and let it out.