They say there’s nothing like a good cry for flushing out those negative emotions and feeling better afterwards. In fact people who don’t or can’t seem to cry are frequently looked on as bottling up their emotions and storing up problems for later in life. Some people never cry, others seem to cry all the time. So is crying really beneficial, or does it depend on the circumstances Psychologists have recently published the results from 3000 crying experiences, in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Johnathon Rottenberg and Lauren M. Bylsma, two psychologists working at the University of South Florida, collaborated with Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, in an analysis of crying experiences. What made their study different from those previously conducted, was the fact that people’s crying experiences were documented outside laboratory settings. In laboratory situations, volunteers tend to feel worse after they have cried, probably due to the stress of the test situation. In more natural settings, most people report feeling better after crying.
The physical effects of crying do indeed show that once crying stops, the body moves from a state of high arousal to one more associated with relaxation. Breathing and heart rate slows, sweating decreases and the period of the relaxed state tends to last longer than the time spent crying. For some people, they actually remember the positive side of crying more than the crying itself, so the reinforcing effects that follow a bout of crying could account for this.
But, feeling better after crying isn’t something shared by everyone. People with anxiety or mood disorders for example do not report feeling better. Those who derive the greatest benefit appear to have received a good level of emotional support from others at the time they cried.
Crying seems to act as a kind of transition point between feeling upset or sad and feeling better and more positive. In cases where people lack insight into their emotional lives, a condition known as alexithymia, they actually feel worse after crying. The authors suggest that lack of emotional insight is likely to be the reason cognitive changes aren’t made to enable the transition from sadness to something more positive.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.