- Research on the potential benefits of tearful crying has focused on self-soothing and social soothing.
- Though the research is still in its infancy, studies suggest tearful crying can affect mood regulation.
- Social reactions to tearful crying may hinder the potential intra-personal self-soothing benefits.
The phrase “a good cry” dates back to at least the mid-1800s while the phrase “cry it out” dates as far back as the mid-1600s. Both phrases suggest in our lay language that crying can relieve some distress or “reliev[e] some feelings” and that we can “weep until soothed or exhausted."1 George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch features a long scene in which Dorothea’s sobbing leads to emotional insight and calm:
[Dorothea] lay on the bare floor and let the night grow cold around her; while her grand woman’s frame was shaken by sobs as if she had been a despairing child…But she lost energy at last even for her loud-whispered cries and moans: she subsided into helpless sobs, and on the cold floor she sobbed herself to sleep.
In the chill hours of the morning twilight, when all was dim around her, she awoke—… she had waked to a new condition: she felt as if her soul had been liberated from its terrible conflict.2
Although there is a dearth of neuroimaging research on tearful, emotional crying in humans, recent research has begun to delve more deeply into the complexities around whether and how tearful crying can affect mood regulation and help to restore a person’s emotional balance, or homeostasis. While there is ongoing debate about whether crying directly promotes mood regulation within an individual through neurobiological mechanisms, research suggests that the social responses to crying have a significant impact not only on the potential neurobiological benefits of crying for mood regulation but also on the role of social-soothing in maintaining emotional balance for the individual.
Two different types of soothing
Discussions about whether crying can help to regulate emotion for the crier focus on two types of soothing: self-soothing and social-soothing. Self-soothing refers to the “direct effects of crying on homeostatic processes of mood regulation and stress reduction of the crier."3 Social soothing refers to “the soothing effects of the comfort and social support provided by others” in response to one's crying.4 Research into whether crying can have self-soothing effects looks at whether neurobiological processes involved in crying such as oxytocin increase, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, and the effects of rhythmic sobbing serve to regulate emotion. Referred to as the intra-individual effects of crying, self-soothing focuses on the direct, internal mechanisms between crying and mood. Research on social soothing looks at how other people’s responses to a crier’s tearful crying influences the crier’s mental and physical well-being. Referred to as the inter-individual effects of crying, social soothing focuses on the interpersonal and indirect effects between crying and mood.
The possible self-soothing benefits of crying
Given the complexities around the intra-individual and inter-individual dynamics of crying, studies have looked at the effects on individuals when crying alone to seek out potential insights into self-soothing. One such 2014 study posits that crying can help an individual self-soothe and self-regulate mood through the following:
Parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions. It acts in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system is responsible for promoting rest, relaxation, and restoration of the body's energy reserves. When activated, the PNS slows down heart rate, decreases blood pressure, and promotes digestion and other processes that help conserve energy. It is often referred to as the "rest and digest" system because it dominates during periods of relaxation and promotes activities that occur when the body is at rest, such as digestion and maintenance of homeostasis. The parasympathetic system is associated with the cranial nerves, which originate in the brainstem and innervate various organs and glands in the head and neck. It also includes the vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve and plays a crucial role in regulating many bodily functions, including heart rate, breathing, digestion, and control of inflammation. Overall, the parasympathetic nervous system helps maintain the body's internal balance, conserves energy, and supports restorative processes.
Studies have suggested that crying activates both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, but that ultimately the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system last 2-to-3 minutes longer than the arousing effects of the sympathetic nervous system.5,6,7,8 A 2019 study sums it up: “It seems that crying onset is associated with an increase in sympathetic activity, and the resolution of crying may also be associated with increases in parasympathetic activity,” which possibly suggest a “recovery process”—physiologically and psychologically—associated with the resolution of crying.9
Oxytocin. In relation to mood regulation, oxytocin has been found to have various effects on emotional well-being. It can promote feelings of calmness, relaxation, and contentment. Oxytocin (OT) has been associated with reducing stress and anxiety levels, and it may have a role in regulating mood by modulating the stress response. Studies have shown that oxytocin can influence the release of other neurotransmitters and hormones, such as serotonin and endorphins, which are known to contribute to mood regulation and a sense of well-being.
One 2008 study theorized that crying correlates with an increase in oxytocin.10 A 2004 book chapter states that OT helps to regulate PNS activity.11 A 2014 study theorizes that “it might be an interesting hypothesis that the PNS activation in its turn triggers the release of OT, with its well-known stress-relieving effects.”12
Stereotypies. Stereotypies refer to repetitive, ritualistic, and often purposeless patterns of movement or behavior. Some individuals engage in stereotypic behaviors as a self-soothing mechanism to regulate their emotions and reduce anxiety or stress. These behaviors may serve as a coping strategy to alleviate negative emotions or to regain a sense of control in challenging situations. A 2014 study expects that the rhythmic nature of sobbing might make it have similar calming effects to the repetitive and rhythmic behavior of stereotypies. While acknowledging that “research on the neural substrates of sobbing is currently completely non-existent,” the study's authors state that "rhythmical behaviors...comparable to sobbing, do produce physiological changes (cardiovascular changes probably reflecting PNS activation, as well as variations in OT and opioids) that are comparable to those that we expect to follow tearful crying." 13 More research is needed to confirm this hypothesis about the relationship between sobbing as a behavioral mechanism and mood regulation.
The role of the social environment
Numerous studies have suggested that social responses to tearful crying promote empathy and prosocial behavior, facilitate social bonding, and reduce inter-personal aggression.14 Studies from 2005 and 2013 theorize that receiving comfort from others when you are crying results in an increase in your oxytocin levels.15,16
However, perhaps the most enlightening aspect of all of this research is how the inter-personal dynamic can adversely affect any potential intra-individual psychophysiological effects of tearful crying on mood regulation. One 2013 study investigated how, if an individual feels that a parent is withdrawing love in the face of crying, this perceived withdrawal could mitigate the increase in oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone” because it creates feelings of trust and connection.17 Likewise, if a person believes that the social context or location is inappropriate for tears or has feelings of shame or embarrassment from crying, these inter-individual dynamics can act as inter-individual obstacles that “may prevent the otherwise automatically elicited mood improvements after crying (self-soothing)."18
Social perceptions of crying can differ widely. People may view crying as indicative of someone’s openness, expressiveness, and authenticity, which can evoke empathy and compassion. However, others may perceive crying as indicating someone’s emotional instability, manipulativeness, or attention-seeking behavior, which could foster negative judgments, skepticism, or dismissiveness toward the crier. The social response to crying is not universally positive and can vary based on individual perspectives and social contexts.
Understanding the complex interplay between interpersonal dynamics, physiological and psychological processes, and individual perceptions in the context of tearful crying and mood regulation is important for several reasons:
- Emotional well-being and empowerment. Crying is a natural and common emotional response, and understanding how it can affect mood regulation is essential for promoting emotional well-being. By comprehending the factors that impact the effectiveness of tearful crying as a means of mood regulation, we can develop strategies and interventions that support individuals in managing and regulating their emotions effectively.
- Stigma reduction. Crying, especially in public or certain social contexts, can be accompanied by stigma and judgment. By understanding the diverse perceptions and responses to tearful crying, we can work toward reducing the stigma associated with emotional expression. Promoting empathy, compassion, and a better understanding of the complex factors involved can contribute to creating more accepting and supportive social environments.
- Relationship dynamics. By recognizing how different responses to tearful crying can impact not only the potential self-soothing benefits of tearful crying on mood regulation but also emotional connections and trust, individuals can develop more empathetic and supportive approaches in their interactions with others. This understanding can strengthen relationships, foster emotional intimacy, and promote healthier communication.
Bakermans-Kranenburg, M J, and M H van I Jzendoorn. “Sniffing around oxytocin: review and meta-analyses of trials in healthy and clinical groups with implications for pharmacotherapy.” Translational psychiatry vol. 3, 5. 21 May. 2013, doi:10.1038/tp.2013.34.
Bylsma, Lauren M. et al. “The neurobiology of human crying.” Clinical autonomic research: official journal of the Clinical Autonomic Research Society vol. 29,1 (2019): 63-73. doi:10.1007/s10286-018-0526-y.
Gračanin, Asmir et al. “Is crying a self-soothing behavior?.” Frontiers in psychology, vol. 5, 502. 28 May. 2014, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00502. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4035568/
Grewen, Karen M., et al. "Effects of partner support on resting oxytocin, cortisol, norepinephrine, and blood pressure before and after warm partner contact." Psychosomatic medicine 67.4 (2005): 531-538.
Hendriks, Michelle C. P., et al. “Can the Distress-Signal and Arousal-Reduction Views of Crying Be Reconciled? Evidence from the Cardiovascular System.” Emotion, vol. 7, no. 2, May 2007, pp. 458–63. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1037/1528-3518.104.22.1688.
Porges, Stephen W. “Social engagement and attachment: a phylogenetic perspective.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1008 (2003): 31-47. doi:10.1196/annals.1301.004.
Snowdon, Charles T and Toni E. Ziegler. “Reproductive Hormones,” Handbook of Psychophysiology, edited by John Cacioppo, Louis G. Tassinary, and Gary G. Bernston. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Vingerhoets, Ad. Why only humans weep: Unravelling the mysteries of tears. OUP Oxford, 2013.
Wubben, Maarten, and A. J. J. M. Vingerhoets. "The health benefits of crying." Emotion Researcher 23.1 (2008): 15-17.