Humans are the only animals to cry tears and crying serves as an important indication to ourselves and others about the emotions we are experiencing. But is there a normal amount to cry? Is it strange to never cry at all? What do you do when you cry too much? Is it appropriate to cry in front of a romantic partner? We’ll shed some light on some of the most popular questions on crying.
Why Do We Cry?
Emotional crying is a normal bodily response to extreme feelings such as sadness, happiness, anger, or empathy. It is a healthy release of emotion; you might even have heard the saying: “have a good cry.” Crying can have many positive results, including reducing feelings of stress and as catharsis. It can help people self-soothe, allowing them to calm down, and releases oxytocin and endorphins which can help relieve physical and emotional pain. It is also a way to elicit support from others when people need it most.
Types of tears
Before we delve deeper into the specifics of crying, first it’s important to understand the three main types of tears: basal, reflex, and emotional tears.
- Basal tears. These tears do the most basic, necessary work to keep the eyes functioning. They are made up of protein-rich antibacterial liquid and they work to lubricate the eye and keep it clear of dust and bacterial infections.
- Reflex tears. Similar to basal tears, reflex tears primarily work to protect the eyes. When the eyes are irritated by foreign particles such as wind, smoke, or onions, the eyes produce these protective tears. They are released in a much larger quantity than basal tears.
- Emotional tears. Emotional crying works to quickly stabilize the mood and occurs as a result of any emotional feeling: happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, empathy, or physical pain. Emotional tears contain a greater amount of stress hormones than other types of tears, which helps to rid the body of stress and explains why crying can be therapeutic. Additionally, greater levels of protein are found in emotional tears. One interesting hypothesis for this curiosity is that the higher protein content allows the tears to stick to the skin and run down the face slowly, thus making them more visible and likely to be seen by others.
What is the Normal Amount to Cry?
It is okay to cry, just as it is okay not to. Although most people do cry at varying frequencies, there are physical and mental health conditions that lead to some being unable to produce tears. If this is something you struggle with, we suggest speaking to your primary care provider — to ensure that the issue isn’t physiological — or a mental health professional to uncover some of the causes. You can focus on creating a safe space to contemplate your feelings, write down your emotions, and speak to trusted loved ones about issues that might be upsetting you or seem like they would be a cause for tears.
For those who do cry, rest assured that some of us cry more than others; there isn’t a specific amount of crying to recommend. A study showed that women typically cry 30–64 times a year, while men cry 5–17 times per year. This gender difference, however, highlights how crying has been unfairly stigmatized for men. In our patriarchal culture, crying is sometimes, and incorrectly, viewed as a sign of weakness. Innately, boys don’t cry less than girls, but as a result of societal pressures boys grow up learning to suppress their emotions. The stigmatization of male crying is destructive and encourages pain and difficult emotions to be internalized as opposed to effectively dealt with and managed. Hopefully, in time, we can break this harmful stigma and encourage healthy crying for all genders.
What to do if you’re crying too much
If you feel like you cry excessively, that you’re inconsolable, or that crying interferes with your daily life, then crying might be indicative of an underlying mood disorder such as depression, or another mental health condition like anxiety. You should speak to your doctor about your concerns to see if they can help you understand more about your crying.
If you’re looking for ways to calm yourself and control crying in the moment, these exercises can be effective.
- Distance yourself from an upsetting situation. Removing yourself from an escalating emotional situation can help you regain control before bursting into tears. You can approach the issue later with a calmer mindset.
- Express your feelings clearly. Communication is key; try to verbally express how you feel. Sometimes simply expressing yourself can reduce feelings of overwhelm that often accompany crying.
- Focus your attention on something else. Using a stress ball or focusing on a physical activity can be helpful distractions that help prevent crying.
- Breathe. Focusing on intentional breathing — such as a 4-7-8 pattern — can help you regain your composure.
- Relax your facial muscles. Ordinarily, before we cry, our face begins to tense. Try to relax your face and release some of the tension building up.
- Bury the throat lump. When you’re about to cry, the nervous system is activated and opens up the glottis, the muscle at the back of the throat that feels like a lump. Take a sip of water, swallow, or yawn to relieve what feels like a pent up urge to cry.
- Write it down. Writing down your emotions is a beneficial way to record your feelings, understand patterns with your crying, and identify the causes for your feelings and behavior.
Is crying a “mental breakdown”?
Although you might cry during a “mental breakdown” — a euphemistic term describing a period of serious mental distress where an individual is unable to cope normally with daily life and battles severe stress — a bit of crying cannot determine a mental breakdown on its own. Symptoms of mental breakdowns include: feelings of depression, insomnia, hallucination, and panic attacks. If crying becomes uncontrollable, however, or you think you cry too often, you should speak to your doctor, it might be the sign of an underlying mood disorder such as depression.
Crying and Romantic Relationships
It can feel uncomfortable to navigate crying in front of your significant other, especially in a new relationship. Over time, as you become more comfortable in the relationship, it won’t feel as strange, but in the beginning you may feel self-conscious, embarrassed, or frustrated with yourself. You might also be unsure about the best way to console your partner if they’re the one in tears.
Is it unattractive to cry in front of a romantic partner?
Many people, especially men, can feel pressure to conceal or suppress their emotional responses for fear of not coming across as strong enough in front of their partner. In reality, showing vulnerability can actually result in your partner feeling closer to you; crying demonstrates strength of character and communicates emotional availability. Crying in front of your partner signifies that you love them and trust them enough to be vulnerable and express your emotions.
How to calm a romantic partner who is crying
As your relationship develops, you will learn the most effective way to comfort your partner, but if it’s still in the early days here are some quick tips to help soothe your partner.
- Witness their feelings. Actively listen to your partner and let them know that you get what they’re going through and genuinely care about their emotional state. Psychology Professor Dr. John Gottman recommends comforting others by describing what you’re witnessing using phrases such as: “I’m sorry you’re hurting so much,” or “I can see you’re having a hard time with this.”
- Try not to talk about yourself, just be there for your partner. If you feel it’s important to mention a similar situation that you’ve experienced, make sure to refer back to your partner and focus the attention on them.
- Ask open-ended questions. Questions such as “What happened?” “What are you worried about?” “How does this make you feel?” provide opportunities for your partner to better explain the situation to you, but also to themselves, helping them work through their feelings. Try to avoid asking “Why” because it often comes off as a criticism. If your partner suffers from depression, however, then try instead to offer actionable steps, or suggest a change of scene to help steer them away from rumination, which can often be detrimental to those struggling with depression.
- Offer physical affection. If your partner just wants to be alone, then give them space, but if physical affection is appropriate and solicited, then comfort them with an embrace.
Everyone is different and it’s completely normal to cry — whether a lot, a little, or never. If you feel that you’re crying excessively, or a lack of crying seems to be impacting your life, it is worth reaching out to a professional to talk through the situation. In-person or online therapy can also help you get in touch with your emotions, have a better relationship with your tears, and leave you at a better place than where you started.