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Tears and Emotions

What have I done!... Anyone know a good divorce lawyer?Many people don’t like crying. They fight tears, hate their tears and hide their tears. Adults and sometimes children are told not to be crybabies. People who cry are often judged as weak and out of control. Emotionally sensitive people may be told that they cry “all the time”  and may judge themselves negatively as a result. So let’s check the evidence. Is it true that tears are a sign of weakness?

Tears can be a signal of cooperation and vulnerability. Tears handicap aggressive actions, as noted by Orren Hasson, in an article on emotional tears as biological signals. It’s hard to fight when you can’t see well. Tears signal to others that you don’t want to fight; perhaps this is the root of the belief that crying makes you weak?

In modern society, fighting is not the most desired social skill. Building a life of contentment requires cooperation and a willingness to be vulnerable in relationships. Tears signal a vulnerability that is authentic and powerful.

When watching someone cry, others may cry in empathy. Allowing tears means the walls are down and the person is undefended. It is an opportunity for intimacy. It’s a signal that something of importance is taking place. Tears are very difficult to fake, so they’re often a sign of honesty to others.

Tears signal a need for help and comfort. Universally people recognize tears as a sign of distress. In earlier times, this may have been seen as a sign of weakness. In today’s world, it is a way of communicating upset. It’s usually effective as most people have a natural response to offer help or comfort to someone who is crying.

Tears communicate different emotions. People laugh until they cry and cry for joy as well as fear, sorrow, and sadness. Some cry when they are angry.

William Frey, a biochemist who wrote Crying: The Mystery of Tears, conducted a survey which showed that sadness accounts for 49 percent of people’s tears, happiness 21 percent, anger 10 percent, fear or anxiety 9 percent and sympathy 7 percent.

Sometimes crying occurs when we cannot put overwhelming feelings into words. Tears can supplant articulation.

Tears may help relieve stress. Emotional tears contain manganese and proteins, including the stress hormones prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). But the amounts aren’t enough to explain why people feel better after crying.  Frey discovered that not only do people cry hormones out but also cry hormones in. He found that the neurotransmitter leucineenkephalin (a natural opiate-like substance that reduces pain) is released in the brain when people weep.

Crying may bring us back into emotional equilibrium.  The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary activities like breathing and kidney function and it is divided into the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems. The sympathetic is responsible for preparing us for action: physically, emotionally and mentally.  The parasympathetic returns the heart rate, hormones and neurotransmitters to normal. Tears are believed to be a part of the parasympathetic system and a part of returning to normal. Thus often people may sometimes find themselves crying after a difficult event rather than during. Tears seem to be a way people calm themselves.

Is there an average amount of crying? Frey says the the frequency of crying in healthy individuals ranges from zero to seven episodes per month for men and from zero to twenty-nine episodes per month for women. The average is 1.4 times per month for men and 5. 3 times a month for  women.

Do women cry more or differently than men? Fully half the men surveyed said they never cry but only 6 percent of the women did. Women’s crying doesn’t necessarily correlate with their hormone levels and those who are depressed don’t necessarily cry more than others.

The tear glands of the sexes are structurally different leading women to cry more profusely than men according to Louann Brizedine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California. And whereas men tend to tear up and cry quietly to themselves, women’s weeping is a much noisier and visible event.

Crying is about attachment and social communication. Crying can be a signal that some aspect of  a relationship is in jeopardy. Between two people in conflict it can be a need for reassurance. Tears handicapping aggressive actions and signal a need for help or submission.

In a relationship,  tears may show trust. Being willing to cry with someone and be comforted means feeling safe with the other person. It can be about bonding, like when a couple cries when they get married or when their baby is born.

Tears seem to be about a powerful connection between thought and emotion, a way of expressing feeling that cannot be expressed in any other way. Others may be uncomfortable with the intensity of the emotion expressed by tears, with the intensity of the emotion aroused in them, or in their resistance to the message. They may not want to offer solace and be uncomfortable with the pull that tears have to draw them in. They may not be comfortable with the vulnerability expressed by someone who is crying. It takes a lot of courage to be that vulnerable. That’s not weakness.

photo credit: Andy MageeCreative Commons License

Tears and Emotions

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). Tears and Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Feb 2012
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