Crying is a common bodily response that corresponds with many emotions. But why exactly does it happen?
Psychologists have been trying to answer this question for decades. In 2014 the American Psychological Association released an article titled Why we cry, digging deeper into culture and gender relations in terms of crying.
There’s yet to be found a definitive reason for why people cry, but many studies associate the ability to cry – the expression of emotion through tears – to the culture we live in and social conditioning.
For example, boys can be less likely to cry because of cultural ideals of men being strong and not crying. But this isn’t always true, and sentiments like this can lead to people not crying. In other cases, people who grow up surrounded by people comfortable with crying might feel it’s more acceptable.
Alex Rose says he hasn’t had a full-out cry in the last 10 years.
“In high school I didn’t cry at all, but I tried to,” says Rose. “I shed a single tear throughout all of high school. It was after watching a YouTube playlist of super sad videos, and it was the scene from Fresh Prince of Bel Air where Will’s dad abandons him again, and it actually kind of cut off as I was watching it, but a single tear rolled down my face and then it cut off and it was so frustrating and unfulfilling.”
Ava Coulter on the other hand had cried the day before her interview, and was almost in tears during it.
“Most things – like my general reaction to anything I feel a lot of, anything in extreme amounts makes me cry,” says Coulter. “Except for sad things that happen to me. I’ll eventually cry, but it’ll take like a day.”
Coulter joked that this might be a learned habit or a genetic trait because her mother was always the same way when she was growing up.
Psychologist at Dalhousie University’s Student Health and Wellness Counselling Services, David Mensink, says that the difference in the that amount people cry has to do with an individual’s emotional reactivity.
“You have those that are highly reactive and will most likely cry at anything and everything or the drop of a hat,” says Dr. Mensink. “Then you have other people who, you know they might say, I cry once a year, once every five years. So those are two very ends of the reactivity spectrum […] then the crying can be for many different reasons within that emotional reactivity.”
But don’t worry if you’re not as emotionally reactive. Dr. Mensink says that this in no way means you’re cold-hearted. And if you’re very emotionally reactive it doesn’t mean you’re weak.
“One person might express and be in touch with their emotions through tears, but somebody else might do it verbally,” he says.
One million reasons to shed a tear
According to Dr. Mensink, “there’s a whole variety – a whole gamut of experiences that can lead to crying.”
Interviewing and speaking with over 10 people for this article, it’s clear everyone has different triggers that make them cry, and some folks require a bigger trigger than others.
But there were some common themes that came up: multiple people mentioned loss, love, happiness and frustration.
Moriah Brennan’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer while she was in high school. Her mom is fine now, but those emotions from that time are still present with her.
“If there’s ever a show and a character gets breast cancer, or if there’s anything related to breast cancer I just kind of have to step away and breakdown for a minute,” she says.
Maeghan Taverner is an acting student at Dalhousie and is also a member of the LGBTQ+ community. She sheds a tear or two when she feels represented.
“When I see myself represented in TV, like if an LGBTQ character is on TV, or if there’s a good storyline because of how it ties in with acting and performing and stuff – when I’m able to see myself reflected in either a live theatre piece, or television or film, it’s just like waterworks,” says Taverner.
King’s student, Lexi Kuo says she’s a pretty frequent crier and pinpointed frustration as her biggest trigger.
“Sometimes you just have a week where it builds up the whole week and then you have a day where you’re just like, you can’t do it, so you cry for a little bit and feel better afterwards,” says Kuo.
People also admitted that they were able to make themselves cry if they really thought about it.
“In acting we have to be able to tie into emotional memories and recall so if I know either I need to cry because of a reason and to make me cry for that,” says Taverner. “Or just if I’m like I’m really stressed out right now, and the only way to get this is either screaming or crying, I can make myself cry.”
A healthy emotional release?
A majority of scientific research suggests that crying can be a form of catharsis. Catharsis is the release of strong or repressed emotions, and so the relief from those emotions.
This might not always be the case. Some people can feel worse after they cry.
Taverner said she gets bad headaches after crying, and it can take a while for her to finally feel like crying was worth it. And Brennan says she feels embarrassed if she’s cried in front of others.
But what does crying do for your mental health?
“Being able to experience and express emotions is a sign of mental health, and it’s a very positive thing,” says Dr. Mensink. “I’m not saying that people that don’t show this reactivity are unhealthy mentally, at all. But I do think being in touch with those emotions and being able to feel those emotions and express them, and there’s different ways to express them (is important).”
So next time you burst out crying and can’t figure out why, Dr. Mensink says that it isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s just a form of emotional expression that you’re comfortable with.