Tears are beneficial to the eye’s health, but they’re also a critical aspect of emotional and social communication.

Have you ever cried during a movie? Or started to tear up watching a loved one’s recognition for hard work?

While tears provide physical health benefits to the eye, like maintaining hydration and providing protection against irritants, they also signal that emotional and social support is needed.

We associate crying with physical and emotional distress, but tears also play an essential part in how we express a wide variety of feelings.

Tears can help communicate feelings when words aren’t enough.

The eye produces an average of 15–30 gallons of tears each year. As we age, we produce fewer tears. An absence of tears can be damaging to your eyes.

Let’s take a deeper look into what exactly tears are, what they’re made up of, and why emotional tears are different and present a beneficial release to our mind and body.

Tears are essential to eye health. They help the eye stay hydrated and offer protection from bacteria, dust, dirt, and other irritants. Tears also signal the need for social bonding and support.

There are three types of tears:

  • Basal tears: provide lubrication and nourishment to the eye and act as a barrier of protection to the cornea
  • Reflex tears: occur in response to harmful irritants and help wash away anything foreign that gets into the eye
  • Emotional tears: happen in response to biological, psychological, and sociological factors

The lacrimal and limbic systems work together to make emotional tears. The limbic system — responsible for emotional arousal — signals the lacrimal system through the brain’s message center that tears are a necessary response.

Each tear is comprised of three layers:

  • Inner mucus layer: helps keep the tear attached to the eye
  • Watery middle layer: offers hydration, protection to the cornea, and provides a shield against bacteria
  • Outer oily layer: helps the surface of the tear remain smooth and helps prevent evaporation

Tears originate in the lacrimal gland located above the eye. Once formed, tears travel across the eye’s surface to the tiny holes located in each upper and lower eyelid.

From there, the tears travel through small canals down into the nose where they’re either reabsorbed or evaporated.

Once considered “purposeless” by the evolutionary great Charles Darwin, tears are now recognized as an essential aspect of our physical and emotional health.

Physically, tears act as a shield for the eye. Emotionally, tears serve a much more complex purpose.

Researchers have proposed that emotional tears originated from animal vocalizations. Babies’ lacrimal glands are not fully developed at birth and can’t produce tears, but they still need to be able to signal when they’re in distress or need care, so they vocalize.

As infants age, the presence of tears increases while the need for vocalization decreases.

Adulthood sees an increase in emotional tears, and rightfully so. Our responsibilities get increasingly larger and the pressure to perform hangs like a cloud over our heads.

Triggers can include a variety of pain-related factors, such as:

  • physical injury
  • emphatic feelings
  • societal stressors
  • relationship difficulties

Although we tend to associate tears with pain, they can also be in response to feelings of joy and happiness.

The body can’t distinguish between overwhelming feelings of fear and sadness or the intense emotions of excitement and pleasure. It just knows that these heightened feelings require a response and release.

Emotional tears are chemically different than basal and reflex tears. All tears contain enzymes, lipids, electrolytes, and metabolites. However, emotional tears appear to contain additional proteins and hormones.

Preliminary research has shown that emotional tears may have increased levels of prolactin, potassium, manganese, leu-enkephalin, and adrenocorticotropic hormones.

The release of these hormones and elements during emotional crying helps regulate stress levels in the body and return it to a more balanced state.

Crying provides many benefits. Not only is it a signal for help during physical and emotional distress, but crying can also help relieve stress, decreasing the levels of cortisol in the body.

Also, crying can present the opportunity for emotional bonding, attachment, and sincere authenticity.

Crying can also signal vulnerability. A 2014 study suggests that tears may even lessen instances of aggression while increasing unity and sympathy from other.

Tears also can increase trust and empathy between individuals.

Crying is a typical response to physical and emotional pain. However, if you feel like you’re crying more often than usual or are becoming more sensitive to stressful situations, it might be time to consider reaching out for help.

Frequent and excessive crying could be a sign of depression, anxiety, or pseudobulbar affect (PBA).

A healthcare or mental health professional will be able to help you determine if your crying is a symptom of something more.