By Carissa Weber, MA, LCP, CSAC
The last couple of posts I’ve done have been pretty heavy. We’ve talked about the role of grief in our mental health, how we are impacted by burnout, and even got down and personal about my own healing process.
I’m going to continue on this train and talk about a very important human skill: crying. Crying is something we have all done at some point of our lives. Whether they are happy tears, sad tears, or even angry tears, crying does some pretty cool things in our brain.
I think first things first, we need to look at why we cry. We can cry for various reasons: to flush irritants out of our eyes, keep our eyes lubricated, reduce physical pain levels, and for emotional reasons. Did you know these reasons also produce different kinds of tears? That’s right, your body is capable of producing four kinds of tears.
No matter why we cry, there is a process our body follows when we need to cry (that’s right, I said need). There is a small gland by the eye called the lacrimal gland which stores all the parts of a tear there. These parts include sodium (which gives your tears that salty taste), bicarbonate (which keeps our body’s pH at a normal level), chloride (an important electrolyte that keeps our body’s fluid levels in check), and potassium. These are mixed in to an oil stored in the gland, so when it gets the signal to cry, it releases that oil, mixed in a watery fluid, to flood our eyes.
What signals our lacrimal gland to release those tears? Depending on the need, a different part of the brain will send the signal to let the waterworks happen. If there is something in your eye, your prefrontal cortex and occipital cortex (the part of our brain devoted to our eyesight) are responsible for telling the lacrimal gland to flush the eye. If you are sick and have a temperature, your tears can be caused from your endocrine system (a.k.a. – the superhero of your immune system), trying to flush away the bacteria or virus making you sick. Cutting onions? You got it! The nerves around the eye signal the tears to get the sulfuric acid away from the delicate eye.
But what about for emotional reasons? Where do those tears come from? I’ll give you one guess. You got it! That Darn Amygdala! That darn amygdala signals to our lacrimal gland that there are emotions needing to be freed, so it signals the tears.
Science is torn about why humans cry when we are experiencing emotions. One study (conducted by Dr. Gračanin in 2018), states we cry when we are experiencing emotions as it is part of our distress call. Crying allows people to see our struggles when we can’t find the words, which allows people to come to our aid. This could be why when we see people crying, we are quick to comfort them.
Another study done in 2016 by Dr. Vingerhoets and her team shows that when we cry, we release oxytocin into the body. Her study points out that crying is related closely to bonding with the people around us. This enables people not only offer support when needed, but have a shared emotional experience, which improves mental health.
When it comes to emotional tears, the theory doesn’t matter as much as the pathway. When we are experiencing an emotion (both good or bad), our darn amygdala starts it all off by throwing that emotion out there. Once there, the thalamus takes the emotion to the adreanal gland. When the adreanal gland hears that tears are needed, it releases a surprising set of neurotransmitters: norepinephrine and acetylcholine. If you recall from my post, Neurotransmitters: The Language of the Brain, the role of acetylcholine helps slows down the heart rate while dilating our blood vessels. Norepinephrine, on the other hand, increases heart rate while making us feel our emotions stronger. What gives?
Based on recent scientific studies, our body releases acetylcholine first as a way to trigger the lacrimal gland to be prepared to release the flood gates and cry. It has been found to dilate the actual tear ducts in the eye. Next, norepinephrine is released as a way to help our body (specifically the prefrontal cortex) recognize what we are experiencing. This will increase our blood flow, our heart rate, and make the feelings intense for a while.
As our brains light up like a Christmas Tree (thanks to the neurotransmitters), there is another neurotransmitter released: endorphins. Based on the latest scientific research, we release endorphins when we are in the middle of crying. Endorphins are repsonsible for that runner’s high we get. Our brain releases it as a way to help decrease any sort of pain we are in so we can continue working with the feelings we have going on. This is also why if you have cried for a long period of time you may feel numb. Good-ol’ endorphins!
These aren’t the only neurotransmitters being released. As our emotions come to pass, a lot of us can feel not just numb, but at peace. Why is that? That is because of oxytocin. As we near the end of a crying spell, the thalamus triggers the brain to release oxytocin as a way to feel calm, safe, and good. Dr. Gračanin showed in his study that crying is not just good for getting people to help us (which also releases oxytocin), but also is a great coping skills to use to self-soothe strong emotional experiences.
As oxytocin releases, this signals the shut down of norepinephrine production. This allows the body to stop crying and return to whatever it needs to focus on. I feel it is important to note that as we wrap up a good crying session, the release of all of these neurotransmitters does something crazy to our hippocampus: it heals it! That’s right, when we allow ourselves to experience our emotions (both good and bad) we are allowing our hippocampus to increase in size and create memories where we feel safe. So let those beautiful tears fall!
Have you ever felt like you had a headache after crying? I feel like I should address that, too. When we cry, especially from stressful and uncomfortable emotions, we are having a release of the stress hormone, cortisol. As this hormone is released, it summons the release of adrenaline. As the stress disappears (and so does the triple F response), we are left in the wake of an adrenaline withdrawal. Adrenaline withdrawal includes runny noses, headaches, and some stomach discomfort.
Your tears do a lot for you. Not just the act of crying, but what the tears do to our brain. Thank you so much for learning more about why it is important to cry. I hope learning more about how important this skill is helps you feel okay about letting the water works flow.
- Bylsma, L. M., Gračanin, A., & Vingerhoets, A. (2019). The neurobiology of human crying. Clinical autonomic research : official journal of the Clinical Autonomic Research Society, 29(1), 63–73. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10286-018-0526-y
- Jurberg Arnon Dias, Cotta-de-Almeida Vinícius, Temerozo Jairo Ramos, Savino Wilson, Bou-Habib Dumith Chequer, Riederer Ingo (2018). Neuroendocrine Control of Macrophage Development and Function. Published in Frontiers in Immunology. (9), 2018, 1440. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fimmu.2018.01440
- Gračanin A, Bylsma LM, Vingerhoets AJJM. Why only humans shed emotional tears: evolutionary and cultural perspectives. Hum Nat. 2018 doi: 10.1007/s12110-018-9312-8. Retrieved from Why Only Humans Shed Emotional Tears : Evolutionary and Cultural Perspectives – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Griff, A (2019). What Are Tears Made Of? 17 Facts About Tears That May Surprise You. Retrieved from What Are Tears Made Of and Why Do They Happen? 17 Facts (healthline.com)
- Vingerhoets AJJM, Bylsma LM. The riddle of human emotional crying: a challenge for emotion researchers. Emot Rev. 2016;8:207–217. Retrieved from The Riddle of Human Emotional Crying: A Challenge for Emotion Researchers – Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets, Lauren M. Bylsma, 2016 (sagepub.com)
- Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com