Go ahead, have a good cry. Far from a sign of weakness or source of shame, psychologists say giving in to your tears is an important coping mechanism and a form of mental hygiene.
“Crying can be an important way to communicate and connect with others,” says Daniel Coletti, a clinical psychologist at Northwell Health’s Division of General Internal Medicine in Great Neck, New York.
Here, a few more specific reasons to let tears flow.
1. You’ll actually feel better afterward
Shannon O’Neill, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Mount Sinai in New York, says crying is a sign that you need to pay attention to something your body is reacting to. Doing that, she says, allows you to acknowledge emotions you may or may not have fully recognized.
Leo Newhouse, senior social worker in neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, similarly says that once you allow yourself to read the body's signal that something is significantly bothering you, you're better able to accept what you're feeling and work toward a sense of calm.
Crying can also make you feel better in the short term, thanks to how it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, a kind of internal regulator of how our body spends energy. The PNS is often referred to as the “rest and digest” state. “Once crying activates the PNS, you’ll begin to feel calm,” O’Neill says.
Psychologists also say that being unable to cry can be its own problem. Natalie Dattilo, director of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says being blocked or numb this way can indicate you’re not in touch with your emotions or, possibly, clinically depressed.
2. You’ll lessen your stress
Along with activating the parasympathetic nervous system, crying kicks off other physiological responses that can improve your well-being. When you’re under pressure, Dattilo says, your body releases the hormone cortisol. Allowed to build up over time, cortisol can become physically harmful. But after you’ve had that cry, cortisol levels decrease and your body releases other hormones that can act as a sedative, creating a sense of calm.
“Just before you begin to cry, your respiration and heartbeat increases and then your body begins to calm,” says Lauren Bylsma, assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
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Tears, says Colleti, also release oxytocin and endorphins, hormones that can help you feel a sense of inner calm and well-being. As a result, after a cry, you are likely to feel soothed, calmer and even physically relieved of some degree of pain.
3. You’ll create stronger social bonds
Bylsma says an evolutionary theory suggests that crying serves as a social signal to others that you need help and support. She also notes that the ability to understand and share feelings signals a greater likelihood of being able to cry, and that the ability to feel empathy increases with age.
Crying not only elicits support from others, says Dattilo, it can promote closeness and appears to strengthen social connections. “When you’re emotionally moved, you tend to be more connected with humanity,” she adds.
Women tend to cry more than men, and psychologists believe this helps them form tighter bonds with others through, among other things, establishing “a feeling of safety” within a group, Coletti says.
4. You’ll keep your eyes healthier
Beyond the many social and emotional benefits, shedding tears also helps keep your eyes healthy, says Deborah S. Jacobs, associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. As she explains, the cornea, or front surface of the eye, is similar to a crystal on a watch in that it protects the eyeball and needs to stay clear. It also needs to stay moist. Tears help with both functions, and even contain enzymes and antibodies that help fight off infection.
“Tears have immune components, making those who don’t produce tears more prone to problems," says Valerie I. Elmalem, an oculoplastic specialist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai in New York.
As you age, you’ll notice you’re producing fewer tears and may struggle with dry eye or eye irritation. This is more apparent decades earlier in women than in men, Jacobs says, thanks to how menopause affects hormones related to our ability to produce tears.
Based in New York, Barbara Sadick is a freelance health journalist. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report and The Washington Post, among other publications.