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Crying Is Not Always Beneficial

 By Jonathan Rottenberg, Ph.D.

Judith Orloff recently wrote that, “Tears are your body’s release valve for stress, sadness, grief, anxiety, and frustration.” This sort of thinking has a long history in Western folk psychology about crying. One analysis of 140 years of popular articles about crying found that 94 percent promoted crying as beneficial and warned readers that suppressing tears would be harmful to the body and mind. Scientific theories about crying have generally followed suit in affirming the idea that crying is beneficial: from psychodynamic theories that view the blocking of tears as a form of repression that produces psychological damage to biochemical theories that view tears as a means to rid the body of harmful toxins. Finally, most clinicians say that crying will be a positive therapeutic experience for their clients, with over 70 percent of clinical practitioners reporting active encouragement of client crying.

By Jonathan Rottenberg, Ph.D.
Created Jul 31 2010 – 1:59pm

Judith Orloff recently wrote that, “Tears are your body’s release valve for stress, sadness, grief, anxiety, and frustration.” This sort of thinking has a long history in Western folk psychology about crying. One analysis of 140 years of popular articles about crying found that 94 percent promoted crying as beneficial and warned readers that suppressing tears would be harmful to the body and mind. Scientific theories about crying have generally followed suit in affirming the idea that crying is beneficial: from psychodynamic theories that view the blocking of tears as a form of repression that produces psychological damage to biochemical theories that view tears as a means to rid the body of harmful toxins. Finally, most clinicians say that crying will be a positive therapeutic experience for their clients, with over 70 percent of clinical practitioners reporting active encouragement of client crying.

So it appears that everyone agrees that crying is good for you. The only problem is that when people stop to collect data on real crying episodes there is suprisingly little evidence that crying confers any tangible benefits.

Yes, it is true that when people are asked to consider past episodes of crying on surveys, that  typically report that crying brings them psychological benefits (i.e., 60 – 70%; reported as a release of tension and feelings of relief). However, when crying episodes are induced in a laboratory setting (e.g., presenting a sad film clip), people rarely report that their tears provide any immediate mood benefits. In fact, in most laboratory studies, people who cry to an eliciting stimulus actually report feeling worse (e.g., increased sadness and distress) than people who view the same stimulus without crying.

We recently analyzed over 3,000 detailed reports of recent crying episodes where respondents described the surrounding social context and the effects of crying on mood. We discovered that not all crying episodes are created equally. Criers who received social support during their crying episode were more likely to report mood benefits than criers who did not report receiving social support. Likewise, when the precipitating events of a crying episode had been resolved, mood benefits were more likely than when events were unresolved. Finally, criers who reported experiencing negative social emotions like shame and embarrassment were less likely to report mood benefits. These findings demonstrate that crying may have more diverse psychological consequences than our stereotypes would admit.

Our folk wisdom that it is invariably good to cry (with the implication that crying should always be encouraged) is so strong that it resists correction by the data. But what we are learning about crying is richer and more interesting than the conventional wisdom.  We are increasingly coming to understand WHEN and FOR WHOM crying is beneficial. For example, the benefits of crying are more likely in naturalistic settings when people are retrospecting about their crying episodes, when the cry-eliciting event is a resolvable problem, for people who are comfortable expressing their emotions, and when criers are not depressed or anxious. 

A capacity to cry is an important part of being human. Crying behavior punctuates the lifecourse, from our start as helpless infants, throughout adulthood, where tears can mark both our most important moments and the most mundane of events. We need to bring more science towards understanding this striking emotional behavior. What little science we have so far does not justify a one-size-fits-all approach.

 

Further Reading

Rottenberg, J., Bylsma, L. M., & Vingerhoets, A. J.J.M. (2008). Is Crying Beneficial? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 400-404.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/03/health/03mind.html

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