It starts with a quivering lip. Or maybe blinking faster and faster to keep the wetness from escaping.
Before you know it, you're getting teary -- again.
You may be one of those people who cry at the drop of a hat -- not to mention weddings, birthday parties, your kids' school plays, and the humane society public service announcements showing those adorable dogs in need of new homes.
Or you may be the type who can't remember when you last cried.
Either way, crying often catches the often-teary eyed or the usually stoic off guard -- striking at a time or place where you don't want to weep -- and others don't want to watch you weep.
Just ask New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, normally stoic, who got teary as he announced the retirement of his star linebacker Tedy Bruschi. Or Hilary Clinton, whose tears one night on the 2008 presidential campaign trail were splashed across TV screens.
Football coaches and politicians crying in public may reflect a society that's evolving to become a bit more comfortable with emotion. But crying in front of people can still be awkward for the person crying and people around them.
What's behind our crying? Why do some people cry so much more or less readily than others? And what's the best way to handle all those tears? Is there a way not to cry when it's totally inappropriate, such as in response to your boss declining that request for a raise? Researchers and therapists who study crying share what they've learned -- and what still puzzles them.
Why Do You Cry?
The ''why'' of crying may seem obvious and straightforward: You're happy or sad. But that's too simplistic.
''Crying is a natural emotional response to certain feelings, usually sadness and hurt. But then people [also] cry under other circumstances and occasions," says Stephen Sideroff, PhD, a staff psychologist at Santa Monica--University of California Los Angeles & Orthopaedic Hospital and clinical director of the Moonview Treatment Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
For instance, he says, ''people cry in response to something of beauty. There, I use the word 'melting.' They are letting go of their guard, their defenses, tapping into a place deep inside themselves."
Crying does serve an emotional purpose, says Sideroff, also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. "It's a release. There is a buildup of energy with feelings."
It can also be a survival mechanism, notes Jodi DeLuca, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Tampa General Hospital in Florida. ''When you cry," she says, "it's a signal you need to address something." Among other things, it may mean you are frustrated, overwhelmed or even just trying to get someone's attention, which DeLuca and other researchers call a ''secondary gain'' cry.
On top of that, crying may have a biochemical purpose. It's believed to release stress hormones or toxins from the body, says Lauren Bylsma, a PhD student at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who has focused on crying in her research.
Lastly, crying has a purely social function, Bylsma says. It often wins support from those who watch you cry. Sometimes, crying may be manipulative -- a way to get what you want, whether you're asking a friend to go shopping with you, your spouse to agree to a luxurious vacation, or your child to get their math homework done.
Crying Out Loud: Who's Most Likely?
Women tend to cry more than men do, most experts concur. "Women have more permission to cry. To some degree it's changing," Sideroff says. But not entirely. "It's still viewed by many, particularly men, as a sign of weakness," Sideroff says.
When it comes to crying habits, the population as a whole is on a spectrum, experts say, with some crying easily and others rarely. Experts aren't exactly sure why, though temperament probably plays a role. "Some people are just more prone to crying," Sideroff says. "Others ignore or are not as fazed by certain things [that provoke tears in criers]."
People with a history of trauma have been found to cry more, Sideroff says. That's especially true, he says, if they dwell on that past. "If you keep referring back to the past of trauma or emotional pain, it will generate more feelings of hurt.''
Women who report anxiety, as well as those who are extroverted and empathetic, are more likely to say they feel comfortable crying, according to Bylsma. Those were the results of a study Bylsma and others published in Personality and Individual Differences in 2008.
Benefits of a Good Cry?
People often refer to a cry as a good cry and say they feel better afterward.
But is that always true?
Usually, but not always, says Bylsma. In a study of nearly 200 Dutch women, Bylsma found that most did say they felt better after crying. But not everyone. "We found that individuals who scored higher on [measures of] depression or anxiety were likely to feel worse after crying."
Exactly why isn't known, she tells WebMD. It could be that those who are depressed or anxious simply don't derive the same benefits from crying as others do.
Coping With Crying
If you're not a world-class crier but are often around those who cry, it can make you feel awkward, useless, or just uncomfortable. That's because when someone cries, it shows their vulnerability, Sideroff says. "I think in general, people are uncomfortable with vulnerability.'' When the crier exhibits vulnerability, Sideroff says, "it's shifting the level of intimacy of the environment.'' Just being in that more intimate environment makes the other person uncomfortable in some cases, he says.
So, how can you -- and how should you -- respond to a crier? Here are four tips:
- Be aware that if you do nothing, you can make the crier feel worse, Bylsma says.
- Try to do something supportive. What that is depends on the situation and how well you know the person, ''So hugging someone you aren't very close with might not be appropriate, while simply listening in an empathetic way would be suitable," Bylsma says.
- Don't assume you know how to comfort them. ''The less intimate the relationship, the more it is appropriate to begin by asking how you can help and be supportive," Sideroff says.
- Know that criers who tear up in a very large group generally feel more uncomfortable than those who cry in front of one or two people they're familiar with. But even in a large group, the criers welcome support from those they didn't know well, Bylsma has found.
Trying Not to Cry
Sometimes, it's just not cool to let the tears flow -- you are trying to put up a brave face while accompanying a loved one to a medical treatment, for instance. Or your boss has just told you your hours will be cut in half.
What to do? Bylsma has this advice:
- Try to postpone the cry but don't cancel it altogether. Suppression isn't good.
- Excuse yourself, find an appropriate place, and cry.
- If you can't leave the situation, postpone the cry and stem the tears with a positive distraction. It would depend on the person and the situation, but she suggests watching a funny video. If you're in the middle of a doctor's office, you might grab a magazine and read.
The Downside of Not Crying
Too many tears can make observers uncomfortable, but never crying may not be mentally healthy.
"For various reasons, a lot of people push down their tears; they suppress them," Sideroff says. One of the consequences is we sort of deaden ourselves, to suppress or not even notice we have those feelings inside. The way that looks to the outside world is depression."
Better to acknowledge feelings such as sadness and hurt, he says. "Feelings are not about good or bad, it's just what is."
Those who suppress emotions and cannot cry may be jeopardizing their physical health, DeLuca agrees. She cites a saying attributed to British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, among others: "The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep."