Don’t hold back – crying really IS good for you


The latest series of the X Factor is taking public bawling to a new level, with judges Kelly Rowland and Tulisa Contostavlos, as well as the contestants, sobbing through the performances.

But is the baring of all this emotion a good idea? It seems it is — last week researchers from Indiana University in the U.S. revealed that sportsmen who let themselves have a cry after losing a match perform better in the long term.

According to scientists their lack of inhibition is a sign of higher levels of self-esteem.

However, this is not the only benefit of crying — emerging evidence suggests shedding a tear can reduce allergies, and even lower the pain of rheumatoid arthritis.

We talked to the experts to find out why crying could be good for us.


Some evidence suggests crying helps regulate the immune system. In a study in 2006, scientists asked 60 patients with eczema and an allergy to latex to watch the Meryl Streep weepie Kramer vs Kramer. Before and after the film the team placed latex on their skin, and measured the reaction.

Compared with those who remained dry-eyed, volunteers who cried had a reduced skin reaction to the latex after the movie. Their skin also had lower levels of inflammatory markers called immunoglobulins, which increase at the site of an allergic reaction.

And a Japanese study of patients with the auto-immune disease rheumatoid arthritis revealed that those who cry easily have less pain and fewer symptoms than those with a stiff upper lip.

Blood tests revealed that immediately after crying, the levels of naturally-occurring immune chemicals that usually aggravate the condition were lower, and that the blubberers had better control of their condition a year later.

Many experts have pointed to this finding as evidence that tears act as some kind of release valve — helping the body to dissipate a build-up of stress hormones that could otherwise harm the body.

Crying is accompanied by activity in our parasympathetic nervous system; its job is to calm the body after a stressful event, causing a drop in heart rate — and shedding a tear may encourage this.

Some studies suggest crying increases levels of oxytocin — a so-called cuddle hormone — which prevents the release of the stress hormone cortisol.


Women generally cry more than men, explains Professor Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist and leading researcher on crying, based at the University of Tilburg, Holland.

However, it seems both sexes cry equally at major life events such as bereavement.

And studies also show that, compared with women, men tend to cry at positive events whereas females cry at negative ones.

We can mostly blame these differences on hormones.

‘The main crying hormone in women is prolactin,’ says Professor Vingerhoets.

Levels of the hormone rise just before and during crying, and experts are divided on its role in crying. Some say it increases empathy in the observer — interestingly, studies show prolactin rises during pregnancy and stays high in the weeks after giving birth. However, others say that prolactin can also boost feelings of helplessness in the person crying.

When it comes to men, their hormones may restrict tears, as Professor Vingerhoets explains

‘Recent research suggests that testosterone may actually inhibit crying — hence why men cry less. But testosterone levels decrease as men age, which may be why  we have observed that some  men cry more frequently as they get older.’

It is the individual variation in levels of hormones such as testosterone that may explain why some people cry at the drop of a hat, while others remain dry-eyed.

And according to Professor Vingerhoets, two personality traits that particularly determine whether one person cries more than another are empathy and neuroticism.

The more neurotic a person is, and the more sensitive they are to other people’s feelings, the more likely they are to cry.


Alcohol has the effect of making us ‘cry into our beer’ as it boosts levels of prolactin. Lack of sleep also makes us more tearful — this is because it’s thought to affect the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls emotions.

Normally this is kept under control by another part of the brain, called the forebrain. But sleep loss decreases the amount of control that the forebrain has over the emotional brain, and we cry more easily, says Professor Vingerhoets.


Damage to the limbic system and forebrain can cause people to suddenly break down in tears for no reason, simply because they’ve lost control of their emotions.

Known as pathological crying or emotional incontinence, this distressing symptom is seen in patients who have suffered a stroke or brain injury, or have a condition such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis.

In some cases this is thought to be due to damage to crucial structures in the forebrain, but brain scanning studies are on-going into the exact cause, in the hope of developing treatments.

Indeed, there is still much to understand about crying. Professor Vingerhoets explains that despite being demonstrated by every person on the planet, it is still, ultimately, a mystery.

‘Tears define our species — and separate us from all other animals, yet science still doesn’t agree on what function it serves.’

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