It is a small drop that forms at the corner of your eyelid. One that soon blurs your vision and causes your eyes to well up, releasing droplets to slide down your cheek. Then another comes and you are suddenly found in a state of distress, be it emotional or reflexive. But what is it that causes these waterworks to start? And why is it that some of us cry so much more often and easier than others?
There are reportedly three kinds of tears. According to this very interesting article our body produces basal, reflex and psychic tears. “Your basal tears are what I like to call the ‘worker tears’ and they keep your cornea (the transparent front of your eye) nourished and lubricated so your eyes don’t dry out. Then there are your reflex tears which that help you to wash out any irritations to your eyes from foreign particles or vapours (onion, being the classic example)”. Finally, there are the most popular type of tears: the “psychic, or ‘crying’ tears. These are the tears produced in response to that strong emotion you may experience from stress, pleasure, anger, sadness and suffering to indeed, physical pain. Psychic tears even contain a natural painkiller, called leucine enkephalin – perhaps, part of the reason why you might feel better after a good cry!”
When we cry, we don’t just become dehydrated and – literally – drained. There are more things that happen at the same time: your heart rate increases, you sweat, your breathing slows and you may even get a lump in your throat – known as the globus sensation. This is all believed to occur as a result of your sympathetic nervous system (your ‘fight or flight’ system) activating in response to your emotional situation. This is also why we are left so tired after a good cry. Yet we somehow feel relieved.
According to this enlightening article, “many psychologists believe that in addition to giving us an outlet for a rapid build-up of a powerful emotions, crying is a social signal to others that we’re in distress”. It is also considered an outlet for shedding stress. In fact, it is believed that emotional tears contain more protein particularly linked to higher stress levels, which is thought to make them thicker and more noticeable as they streak down the cheeks. It is a call for support and empathy and a way of releasing stress-related chemicals from the body.
We cry mostly when we’re sad. In this way, it acts as a signal to others that we are in distress and it is a call to induce sympathy and attention. This may explain why the waterworks appear more often in children and women. According to a 1980s PhD study by biochemist William H. Frey, on average, women cry 5.3 times a month, while men cry 1.3 times in that same time period. There may be a biological reason behind this, as the hormone prolactin – found at higher levels in women – is thought to promote crying.
We cry when we feel that we are overwhelmed with emotions that are too difficult to handle. And suddenly thoughts invade our head that make us feel even worse, such as that things aren’t going our way, that we don’t have time to be or do the things we want, or that others are better off than we are. A whirlwind of reflections and feelings ensues entrapping us into a vicious circle that simply accentuates the waterworks.
But we also cry when we’re happy. It is a way of demonstrating how we feel – that we are so overjoyed, we sometimes can’t believe it. That powerful string of – positive, this time – emotions is what causes the tears to run. It is a good thing. But this too causes us to feel exhausted after a while.
It is believed that crying depends on a person’s level of sensitivity. We don’t all think the same way, nor do we feel the same. People react to different circumstances differently. That is what makes them unique. They should not be judged for it, but rather appreciated for their own way of responding to whatever life throws at them. Crying is not a sign of weakness after all; it is merely a sign of emotions and the fact that a person’s heart is beating faster at times.