When it comes to human tears, the scientific community mostly cries uncle. “We hardly know what happens when we cry,” says Ad Vingerhoets, a professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and the one of the world’s foremost experts on crying. The only thing they’re completely certain of, in fact, is that tears come from the lacrimal gland — almond shaped glands in the corner of the eyes that produce and secrete tears.
But let’s back up for a minute and figure out why people cry in the first place. According to Vingerhoets, tears are useful to humans because, in the early phases of life, a visual signal is less dangerous than an acoustical signal. “Vocal crying not only may attract the attention of caregivers, but also of possible assaulters and predators,” he says, adding that visible tears convey that a person is in need of help. “It stimulates empathy and induces supportive behaviors, and it may reduce aggression,” says Vingerhoets. “More generally spoken, tears stimulate bonding.”
Humans, Vingerhoets notes, are the only animals that produce emotional tears. “[That’s] because of our unique prolonged childhood, a period in which we’re motorically fully developed, but are still dependent on the protection, love and support of adults,” he explains.
In adulthood, of course, crying becomes a less socially acceptable phenomenon, especially for men. As Ilan Shira explains in Psychology Today, though, there’s more going on than simply discouraging men from expressing their emotions publically — convincing men to hold back their tears is, Shira argues, a way to defuse their emotions altogether. Historically speaking, he continues, that may often have been for the best:
“Stoicism is linked to masculinity to act as a restraint on the aggressive side of this identity that sometimes runs amok, and we can see the incentive for cultures to do this. All told, this practice has probably prevented countless cases of violent outbursts and many casualties throughout history.”
But in an age when more and more powerful men feel comfortable opening up their optical floodgates on the public stage, surely we can all agree that it’s more healthy for men to just let the tears flow if they need to?
Not necessarily, says Vingerhoets.
“We compared the well-being of a group of non-criers (who lost the capacity to cry) and normal criers,” explains Vingerhoets. “There were no differences in well-being. The differences were in empathy — to what extent one felt connected with others and the amount of social support they receive.”
In fact, Vingerhoets believes that the only way the suppression of tears could really be harmful is if it prevents others from realizing you’re in pain. “Maybe, if the suppression of tears is part of a more general and comprehensive way of life (inhibition of emotions and maybe also concealment, not willing to share one’s problems with others), then it may have negative effects on one’s well-being,” he says.
According to a 2016 Time article, virtually everything you’ve heard about how suppressing your tears could potentially be bad for your health is basically wrong. “Virtually no evidence exists that crying comes with any positive effects on health,” writes Mandy Oaklander. “Yet the myth persists that it’s an emotional and physical detox.” Oaklander notes one analysis that reviewed 140 years worth of crying in the media and found that 94 percent of it described it as good for the mind and body, while holding back tears would result in the opposite.
It’s not hard to find examples, either: This 2016 piece for Shape magazine, for example, which quotes Nicole Van Groningen, an internist at NYU Langone Medical Center, talking about the myriad problems with suppressing your tears:
“Crying is essentially a release valve that rids your body of excess stress and tension, so when a sobfest is on the horizon and you hold it in, your body’s sympathetic nervous system (or fight-or-flight response) kicks into gear,” Van Groningen said. “Your brain signals your adrenal glands to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals boost your heart rate and blood pressure, which can translate into chest tightness and heavy breathing as you force yourself not to cry. These hormones can also mess with your appetite and blood sugar levels, hence the pre-meltdown butterflies and energy surge.”
That certainly sounds convincing. But in the same Time article referenced above, Jonathan Rottenberg, an emotion researcher and professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, tells Oaklander, “It’s kind of a fable. There’s not really any research to support that.”
Still, most of us have had a good cry that’s made us feel at least a little better, so what’s happening there? Vingerhoets says it has to do with the part of the nervous system that helps a person relax. “It must be admitted that crying may stimulate the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that’s associated with relaxation, recovery, and growth,” explains Vingerhoets. “But these effects seem rather small.”
Again, though, not nearly enough research has been done to get concrete answers. Vingerhoets believes this dearth of research on tears goes hand-in-hand with the lack of interest in the symptoms of emotions in general. “Researchers aren’t interested in butterflies in the stomach, but in love; not in trembling knees or moist hands, but in fear and anxiety,” says Vingerhoets. “Erroneously, investigators maybe consider tears also as just a symptom of sadness. However, tearful crying is much more than just a physiological reaction accompanying sadness.”
All of which is to say, next time someone tells you that if you let it all out, you’ll feel a whole lot better, well, maybe they’re somewhat correct — but it’s nowhere near as much as you’ve been led to believe.