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Why do People Cry?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Humans produce tears for a variety of reasons. Some of these have nothing to do with why people cry. If you’re cutting up an onion or suffering from seasonal allergies, your eyes may be brimming with tears. This is not emotional crying, but instead it is the act of the eyes producing tears to lubricate the eyes. In fact there are three types of tears: basal, reflex and emotional, which all occur for different reasons.

Basal tears are released regularly to keep your eyes lubricated. Reflex tears are those produced when irritants bother our eyes. Emotional tears are produced in the grip of extreme emotions: sadness, anger, and sometimes even laughter. Furthermore, we tend to produce emotional tears when we get injured, and some researchers suggest that the body doesn’t really differentiate between emotional and physical pain, even if the mind can.

There are many theories on why people cry emotional tears. One such is that there are proteins in tears, which are the same components in certain hormones. One of the biggest of these is prolactin, present in greater levels in women than in men. Women use prolactin in large supply when they are nursing infants, and in the first few days after having a baby, breastfeeding that baby may produce very strong emotional response as prolactin levels increase massively. Women also report feeling very calm, sleeping or spaced out during the first few weeks after a baby’s birth because of the high levels of this hormone.

Not only does prolactin stimulate lactation, but it also tends to have an overall calming effect. It may be the case that prolactin, and other hormones like it are part of a mood regulation system. When we perceive physical or emotional pain, these hormones may build, and produce greater amounts of tears. Thus people cry, and this release may be calming too, helping to restore mood.

It also should be kept in mind that crying is the natural province of the infant. Babies come into this world and most immediately begin crying (though they don't always produce tears immediately), and they will use this communication device pre-language development to communicate all their desires. But, studies also show that boy’s cries may be ignored for slightly longer, and especially in certain cultures, girl’s cries are attended to immediately. From birth we may be taught there are immediate rewards for crying, or that it is of little purpose, depending on our gender.

Whether or not people cry as adults may have much to do with the way their society treats tears. In many societies, tears in men are only acceptable at a few occasions, perhaps a funeral. This is unfortunate indeed; especially when boy children are told not to cry regularly, and many men have felt cut off from expressing emotions of grief that could help them heal from emotional wounds. Instead anger becomes the preferred emotion because it is more “male,” and men may need to work very long and hard to access the grief behind anger.

Women, conversely, may cry more easily not simply because they release more prolactin, but because conventionally, their society accepts their crying. When people cry, especially women, they may be viewed as “emotional” as though this is a negative characteristic. On the other hand, most therapists will point out that crying is likely to be a great way to release an emotional response and restore the mind to a quieter place. The man who bottles his emotions may ultimately be more negatively emotional than the woman who lets her emotions out in the release of crying.

Despite these theories, no single answer exists as to why people cry from emotional and physical pain. Having the tear ducts well up with unshed tears is much more easily explained when something is bothering your eyes. There is suggestion though that there are both nature/nurture reasons for why people cry. Women may have more prolactin, but in some cultures men can be found weeping and sobbing just as openly as women. There may be evolutionary, cultural and physiological components all combined to explain our tears. What is understood is that crying, especially in periods of grief or strong emotion, is often emotionally beneficial, as long as the person does not feel guilty for having displayed such emotion.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon323137 — On Mar 03, 2013

People can cry because they are frustrated. Family frustration, frustrated at why someone has to go, why they can't get better grades, just frustrated about something. Probably most people cry because of that.

Also, how can someone be called a man if they listen to society's pressures and telling them things like "you can't cry!" Being afraid of what society think of you and listening to thing like that, I believe that would be more like cowardly, not manly.

Crying shows that you're human, and that you are strong, not afraid to show your feelings to someone.

Show them manly tears!

By anon309995 — On Dec 19, 2012

Crying is natural. We were built to do it. Everyone should cry and not feel embarrassed

By anon299197 — On Oct 24, 2012

People cry when they have the hurt ripped out of them. I'm sensitive, and I seem to be suffering this a lot recently. I wonder if I need antidepressants.

By AthenaP — On Oct 08, 2012

I cry because I'm sensitive. Everything makes me cry.

By anon273405 — On Jun 06, 2012

When you can't cry, then you've got real problems.

By anon257587 — On Mar 27, 2012

When people feel really bad from their inside of the heart, they start to cry.

By anon249070 — On Feb 19, 2012

People cry because they want to show their emotions and what they feel inside. Sometimes because they are happy but mostly because they are sad. Anger can also make people cry.

By anon249068 — On Feb 19, 2012

My favorite line is "crying is likely to be a great way to release an emotional response and restore the mind to a quieter place." They said that a man should never cry even in private? I think it's not acceptable because even men have emotions also. It is said in the blog that crying is the best way in releasing your negative emotions.

By anon184628 — On Jun 08, 2011

i really got angry with my husband when he scolded my son because of crying. he said, he doesn't want to listen to anybody who is crying. he definitely hates to hear someone crying, and he said such by shouting when in fact we were just three feet away from each other.

I believe crying is not a sin. we cry for a reason. men who do not cry are certainly those who were deprived of expressing their emotions as kids, thus i pity these men -- and that includes my husband.

By anon183967 — On Jun 07, 2011

I am shocked by #9. How can you say men should never cry even in private? That they should man up? When my mom died I know my dad cried and I can't believe anyone would blame him for it. I'm sorry, but I find that horribly offensive. A real man doesn't let others push their unreasonable standards on him but he is what he is.

By anon183425 — On Jun 05, 2011

i don't know why we cry, but i don't really cry. We men are designed not to cry like a woman because we should comfort females because they are more emotional.

i love it when my girlfriend cries because i can show her that i care, and I can hug her for a long time! Yeah! I'm good.

By anon169512 — On Apr 21, 2011

i think crying is a false sense of security because after you've cried yourself into a good mood, the fact remains that whatever made you cry hasn't gone away, i.e., funerals. Everybody cries at a funeral but their loved one will never get out or the casket to console them so the question is the point of why we cry isn't that important when you realize that it has no real effect on anything beside sympathetic people and even then it has no effect on anything. crying isn't even a sad thing to see. someone do people cry to get out of stuff. it's stupid.

By anon165176 — On Apr 04, 2011

I think children at a young age cry at almost anything because their minds haven't adapted to the world, so when they get hurt, or put in a tight spot which would usually merely annoy us, their brain says the only solution is to cry

By anon122067 — On Oct 26, 2010

Emotional/mental pain has limits. that's what causes you to get depressed, sad, suicide, screw your life, etc. You can die mentally and still be alive.

If at a young age someone is abused or raped, they'll most certainly become hollow, so how can you say Man up? everyone should cry. everyone should understand their mistakes and repent, ask for help when in the face of danger.

We are a social animal. Try to do, fix, or keep everything to yourself and you'll soon see what happens.

By anon120694 — On Oct 21, 2010

It is all right for a man to cry, as long as it is not too long. Otherwise, pent up anger takes its place. Personally, I think society is really screwed up to impose such standards on men. We are human beings first.

By anon116737 — On Oct 07, 2010

I agree with number 9. Physical pain has limits, emotional/mental pain has no limits and no threshold. Miss you, Piper.

By qhuelle — On Aug 20, 2010

they cry because something bad happened.

By anon92508 — On Jun 28, 2010

Men, you should be ashamed of yourself if you cry. No reason to show those negative emotions! Whether public or private, it should never happen. Breakups, deaths, funerals, etc., not acceptable! This world is too soft today! Man up!

By anon91021 — On Jun 19, 2010

I cry mostly for emotional pain because I find it hurts more than physical pain, in a sense.

Cuts and bruises fade but emotional scars may never leave you.

When I was younger I cried more for physical pain.

I think that it's because young children get hurt, physically more easily. When you start growing up you face more emotional problems, that's when the emotional tears really kick in.

By anon90453 — On Jun 16, 2010

i think that crying is sensitive for everybody, and that crying is natural.

By anon80011 — On Apr 25, 2010

people always think they cry because they're sad. But crying can come from frustration, anger, strong emotions or hurt. Not from just sadness.

By anon55105 — On Dec 04, 2009

People cry because we have complex emotions and crying is one of the emotions which few animals can display.

By anon35866 — On Jul 08, 2009

Another way to ask this question: Why don't animals cry? (Or do they?)

By anon34197 — On Jun 18, 2009

here is why i think people cry. they cry because they are sad.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
Learn more
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