If you find yourself crying when others do, it’s not a coincidence. Crying is a type of emotional contagion, meaning you can “catch” a person’s tears similar to how you can catch a cold from them.

women wiping tears from their eyes in a movie theater Share on Pinterest
Edwin Tan/Getty Images

Tears are a physical expression of your emotional state, similar to facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. When you cry, people around you tend to respond.

Some people may also “catch” your tears and start to cry themselves, and others may feel empathy toward you.

In either case, crying is contagious.

When it comes to crying, there’s a lot more going on than simply tears. Crying is a form of physical expression of emotions that signals a response from others.

Humans are the only species that express emotion through tears. Some evidence suggests tears trigger bonding, empathy, and a desire to provide support to a person in emotional distress. In early humans, it may have been a non-verbal sign that another person needed help.

Crying is a form of emotional contagion. An emotional contagion refers to how emotions can spread from one person to another through both direct and indirect interactions and observations.

This may — partially — explain why some people cry when watching a character cry in a movie or when a relative stranger, such as a co-worker, cries.

A 2021 review of studies on emotional contagions suggests that on a simple level, emotions express feelings of positive or negative pleasure and arousal. On a complex level, emotions form part of a complex and connected hierarchy.

They note that people have an innate need to copy or mimic the emotional states of others around them. For example, you may be more likely to smile if a person you’re talking with is smiling, and similarly, you may start to cry if someone is crying.

In other words, when you cry because someone else is, you’re trying to connect with them on an emotional level – whether you intend to or not.

You may find that you cry with a friend or family member because you understand or know their situation and understand the broader context of their tears. But seeing tears may be enough to trigger your own.

According to a 2022 study, seeing a person cry — regardless of context — may trigger crying in some people. In their study, researchers exposed people to different facial expressions, including a mix of crying and not crying. They also randomly gave the faces positive, negative, or neutral backstories.

They found that seeing crying could trigger an observer’s tears regardless of the backstory behind the image, meaning that tears can convey emotion independently of other factors.

On the reverse, they also found that seeing tears could help an observer better understand the context of the person’s situation.

Crying in response to others is natural and likely due to an innate desire to mimic their emotional state.

Preventing or stopping tears when around someone who is crying can take some practice. It requires taking steps to regulate your own emotions.

Different strategies may work for you and not work as well for others. Some long-term prevention tips that may help with regulating your emotions include:

  • Regular exercise or movement: Exercise can help keep your body healthy, manage stress, and help with emotional dysregulation. Practicing deep breathing exercises may also help when facing strong emotions.
  • Reappraisal strategy: The reappraisal strategy involves thinking about and reframing how you perceive stressful or emotional stimuli, though it may not be as effective in particularly high-stress or emotional situations. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and mindfulness exercises may help with reframing how you think and allow you to better manage your own emotions when someone is crying.
  • Consider seeking professional help: A therapist or other mental health professional can help provide you with strategies and guidance for dealing with emotions, such as stress management, journaling, or identifying triggers. They may also help you delve deeper into what causes such a strong reaction.

For more information on how to stop crying, consider visiting Psych Central’s resource page, which offers self-help tips that you can practice in the moment.

Why do we cry?

Crying may serve several potential benefits, including:

  • expressing joy
  • connecting with others
  • releasing endorphins
  • help with cleaning the eyes
  • signal physical injury
  • as a way to show distress
  • dealing with depression
  • coping with life events, loss, or grief

Click here for more information on why we cry.

Was this helpful?

Crying is contagious. Many people — possibly yourself included — cry when you see someone else crying.

Crying can help create a sense of empathy and support from others. It can also signal distress to others.

If you find you cry often when around a person who is crying, you may be able to use different strategies to help regulate your emotions. Strategies can include practicing breathing exercises, regular physical activity, or learning how to reframe how you process what you are feeling.