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The Psychology of Crying

The Psychology of CryingWe’ve all experienced a “good cry” — and the event appears to make some of us feel better and help put things in perspective.

But is crying beneficial for everyone? And is there such a thing as a “bad cry”?

University of South Florida psychologists describe some of their recent findings in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The psychologists analyzed the detailed accounts of more than 3000 recent crying experiences (which occurred outside of the laboratory) and found that the benefits of crying depend entirely on the what, where and when of a particular crying episode.

The researchers found that the majority of respondents reported improvements in their mood following a bout of crying.

However, one-third of the survey participants reported no improvement in mood and a tenth felt worse after crying. The survey also revealed that criers who received social support during their crying episode were the most likely to report improvements in mood.

Research to date has not always produced a clear picture of the benefits of crying, in part because the results often seem to depend on how crying is studied. The authors note several challenges in accurately studying crying behavior in a laboratory setting.

Volunteers who cry in a laboratory setting often do not describe their experiences as being cathartic or making them feel better. Rather, crying in a laboratory setting often results in the study participants feeling worse; this may be due to the stressful conditions of the study itself, such as being videotaped or watched by research assistants. This may produce negative emotions (such as embarrassment), which neutralize the positive benefits usually associated with crying.

However, these laboratory studies have provided interesting findings about the physical effects of crying. Criers do show calming effects such as slower breathing, but they also experience a lot of unpleasant stress and arousal, including increased heart rate and sweating. What is interesting is that bodily calming usually lasts longer than the unpleasant arousal. The calming effects may occur later and overcome the stress reaction, which would account for why people tend to remember mostly the pleasant side of crying.

Research has shown that the effects of crying also depend on who is shedding the tears.

For example, individuals with anxiety or mood disorders are least likely to experience the positive effects of crying. In addition, the researchers report that people who lack insight into their emotional lives (a condition known as alexithymia) actually feel worse after crying.

The authors suggest that for these individuals, their lack of emotional insight may prevent the kind of cognitive change required for a sad experience to be transformed into something positive.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

The Psychology of Crying

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). The Psychology of Crying. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 10, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2008/12/19/the-psychology-of-crying/3530.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.