By Rebecca Patterson, MSMFT
I am a shameless crier. As Kristen Bell (pictured above mid happy tears) perfectly describes, “If I’m not between a three and seven on the emotional scale, I’m crying.” I like to think of this as an excellent way my body gives feedback about how I’m feeling. A lot can be learned about ourselves through the tears we shed, but I know that many also feel great shame and inadequacy about those tears, which is why it can be helpful to have a better understanding of why they’re there.
So, why do we cry? Tears don’t always indicate emotion, like when they’re a reflexive reaction to cutting an onion or getting hit in the nose. But emotional crying is a uniquely human experience with a clear evolutionary benefit. You would not be here today if your ancestors didn’t cry! Not only does crying elicit attention and reaction from others (giving even the youngest infant the ability to communicate distress nonverbally), but the vulnerability it creates is also a critical part of human connection. The areas of the brain that light up when we cry are also activated when we witness someone else crying, literally activating empathy on a neurological level
Imagine the first time you see an ex with a new love: a lump forms in your throat, your heart rate quickens, your brow begins to furrow. In this moment, your brain has gone into fight or flight mode—but you’re not actually physically in danger—so your brain needs to release all that stress. The emotional center of your brain (your Limbic System) communicates with the Lacrimal System to produce tears so you can simultaneously provide a hormonal release and elicit empathy and compassion from those around you who witness your crying.
Our tears are as natural a process as any of our other bodily functions. The modern world has placed much more judgmental meaning on our tears than any of our early ancestors would have ever thought to do. But with knowledge comes a chance to treat ourselves and others with more grace and kindness around the complex emotional creatures we are – tears and all.
Trimble, M. (2012). Why humans like to cry: Tragedy, evolution, and the brain. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
Vingerhoets AJJM, Bylsma LM. The riddle of human emotional crying: A challenge for emotion researchers. Emotion Review 2016; 8:207-217.