Why do we cry? Discover the mental health benefits of crying

Podcaster Sas Petherick explores why a good cry can be good for you. Learn about the mental health benefits of crying and how it can help us to cope with difficult situations

Illustration of a woman crying from Project Calm Magazine

I love a good cry. My favourite way to spend an evening alone involves pyjamas, a giant bowl of popcorn, and a favourite *uglycry movie. Allowing myself to feel all the feelings is a cathartic release, its immensely satisfying and I always sleep so well afterwards.

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So what are the benefits of crying? It turns out there are many reasons why crying feels so good. Our bodies contain a series of interwoven systems set up with the express purpose of helping us to cry. The part of your brain that deals specifically with emotions is called the limbic system; this is intrinsically linked to your sympathetic nervous system (producing involuntary responses like goosebumps, dilated pupils and a lump in your throat); and both your emotions and body sensations are woven into the lacrimal or ‘tear’ system that stimulates crying. This complex set-up is precisely organised to help us feel emotions like stress, joy, grief as well as physical pain. It’s super important for our mental health and physical equilibrium; our tears even contain a natural painkiller – leucine enkephalin – that helps to restore us after a good long cry.

But of course crying is not just an involuntary physical response to our emotions. The experience of crying has deep psychological benefits too. Tears are our gateway into vulnerability, empathy and connection with others. Crying is one of the first behaviours we learn as infants to ask someone to notice us, attend to our needs and offer comfort. We learn how good it feels when we receive care from someone else, helping us connect with others. When you cry in front of someone else, it signals to them that you’re willing to show them your vulnerable side. Typically humans are only willing to show emotion in front of people they trust, so when you cry amongst friends, lovers and family members, you are strengthening your bond with them.

When you witness someone crying, it’s likely that your first response is to want to help them. You may even find yourself moved to tears by someone else’s pain and suffering. But sometimes, being there for someone you care about can feel awkward and embarrassing; you might even feel impatient for it to be over. Usually this is because you want to fix something that is not yours to fix.

But don’t worry that you don’t know what to say, because there is no one right thing you can say that will stop someone from feeling. Just be honest: “I’m not sure what to say or do, but I’m here”. These are powerful, freeing words that convey your willingness to be present with your loved one. Sometimes we want to be the helper or the hero that comes up with the magical answer. But sitting there with compassion is enough – you can trust the other person to be with their emotions.

Equally, we can experience tears of joy when good things happen to the people we love. If you are always packing waterproof mascara when you go to weddings, this is likely to be a measure of your empathy as well as your good planning! We may also feel the sting of tears when we hurt others. Feeling remorse and guilt are often emotions that indicate how connected as well as how distressed we feel; that our words or actions may have put a relationship at risk.

Crying alone is also a very healthy practice. It means you are learning not to numb emotions you might perceive as negative. When we deny or distract ourselves from feeling selective feelings, we inadvertently numb our ability to access the full spectrum of our emotions. So allowing yourself to cry makes room for you to experience joy, fulfilment, excitement and all the emotions you are meant for.

Woman crying illustration

Embracing your tears is also helpful for learning to spot the difference between a healthy cry and an unhealthy one. Self-pity, envy and perfectionism can set off tears of frustration and blame that are unlikely to create the natural soothing effect of crying. One of the key benefits of crying is accepting how you are feeling and being ok with that. But for some of us, letting our tears flow can feel like a different country – somewhere we have no idea how to get to. If you are disconnected from your emotions, or have become practised in suppressing your feelings for a long time, it can feel overwhelming, disorienting and even unsafe to allow yourself the space to cry.

I like to think about emotional intelligence as like learning a new language, it’s going to take some time and patience and it helps to start with simple words and phrases. In the language of emotions, this means beginning with naming and exploring the emotions that feel more comfortable to you, and slowly working your way into the more uncomfortable ones. Remember your body contains a whole series of complex systems working at all times to help you process your feelings. The invitation is to slow down and get curious and ask yourself: how does this feel in my body? Don’t be ashamed of the intensity of your emotion. Even if you don’t always know what you are feeling or why.

If your excitement, grief, sadness or joy feels a little wild, you can give it a safe place to live, just by being with it. Just being interested in learning about your emotions, means you are creating the space to feel them, to allow your body’s natural intelligence to help your emotions (and tears) flow through you. American essayist Washington Irving said: “There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

Crying softens, soothes and rejuvenates us; we get to connect to our emotions, our experiences, our loved ones, our humanity. They are also scientifically proven to make you feel better. So create your Sad Bangers playlist, stay in with a sad movie and let your tears flow!

*My top five ugly-cry movies are these: The Way We Were, Carol, Marley and Me, The Colour Purple, and Seven Pounds.

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This article was first published in Project Calm magazine issue 15.