Though shedding tears is often associated with uncomfortable and unpleasant feelings, crying is an extremely important and unique feature of being human. While the purpose of our tears and crying varies as we age, it serves a basic human function throughout our lives - to promote physical, emotional, and social health.
What is Happening When You Cry?
An individual produces an average of 10 ounces of tears a day and 30 gallons of tears a year. Our tears are a salty, antibacterial fluid made up of water, proteins, mucus, and oils. Tears may be triggered by a number of things - including signals from our brains and pollutants from the environment.
The lacrimal glands, small almond shaped glands located in the upper outer area of each eye, constantly produce and secrete tears. Each time we blink, we are spreading the tears and lubricating the entire eye.
Not All Tears Are Created Equal
There are actually three different types of tears, each consisting of a unique composition and serving a different function. While we may typically associate tears with crying and difficult emotions – only one type of tears are spurned by emotions, and considered crying. The other two types are categorized as lacrimation – which refers to the non-emotional shedding of tears.
The Three Types of Tears
- Basal tears – these refer to the tears that are constantly and consistently being produced. The function of basal tears is to nourish our eyes and protect them from drying out
- Reflex tears – these tears protect our eyes from external irritants, this can include smoke, pollutants, or the chemicals released from chopping onions. Sensory nerves in the cornea communicate the presence of an irritant to your brain stem which then sends a signal to the lacrimal glands to begin reflex tear production
- Emotional tears – these are the tears you typically think of. A signal in the cerebrum (the part of the brain where emotions such as sadness are registered) triggers the endocrine system to release hormones into the eye area which causes tears to form
Benefits of Crying
You may be familiar with the expression “sometimes you just need to have a good cry”. This comes from the increasingly common belief that crying can have positive physical, emotional, and social health benefits. Some of the researched health and social benefits of tears & crying include:
- Emotion induced crying provides therapeutic and cathartic release and relief. Chemicals build up in the body during times of elevated stress and some researchers believe that crying is the body’s way of ridding itself of these toxins (this explains why we see a different protein composition in emotional tears)
- Our tears kill bacteria. Tears contain lysozyme, a fluid which can kill the majority of bacterias
- Some studies have shown that stifling tears can result in an elevated risk of heart disease and hypertension
- Crying is an essential communication tool! We see this primarily with infants, who lack other means of communication, but this holds true even into adulthood as crying can signal our emotions and needs
- Tears can also help us understand the feelings of others, improving our ability to interact and engage in a positive and healthy social environment
- Tears and crying promote eye health as they serve a function in protecting, nourishing, and sanitizing our eyes. Additionally, tears can improve our vision by lubricating the eyeballs
- Crying can signify healthy emotional security and attachment
- Nerve growth factor, a compound found in tears, has medicinal functions and has been found to play a role in healing damage to our eyes. Research is currently be undertaken to examine any other healing properties of this compound.
When Crying Becomes Unhealthy
As we have illustrated, crying serves an essential and healthy purpose at the societal and individual level. That being said, crying can also be a signal that something more profound and problematic is going on for an individual. Prolonged or uncontrollable bouts of tears and crying may be symptomatic of serious diseases or conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and postpartum depression.
If you think you may be suffering from one of these conditions, or are concerned about your emotional state, you may require physical and/or psychological support and treatment. In addition to our Family Physicians, The Medical Station has a number of other health providers, including Social Workers and a Yoga & Meditation Therapist, who may be able to assist you.