Why We Cry: The Truth About Tearing Up

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on July 07, 2022
4 min read

Some people cry during commercials, while others only tear up for very sad or happy moments. Sometimes, we even cry randomly. But what’s the reason behind the waterworks? Why do some people cry more than others? Is there any way to control it?

We cry three different types of tears. Each has its own job and flows from your tear ducts for a different reason:

Basal tears. These tears coat your eyes all day. Blinking helps spread them evenly over the surface of your eyes. They can improve your vision, hydrate your eyes, and sharpen your focus. They protect your eyes and keep out debris. Your tears also transport oxygen and nutrients to the surface of your eyes.

To help them do their job, they contain:

  • Water for moisture
  • Mucus to spread the tears over the surface of your eyes
  • Oils for lubrication, which also helps prevent your tears from evaporating
  • Antibodies and special proteins to resist infection

Irritant tears. These tears gush out of the glands under your eyebrow when you peel onions, throw up, or get debris in your eyes. They wash your eyes out and flush out irritants to protect you.

Emotional tears. These arise from strong emotions. Empathy, compassion, physical pain, attachment pain, and moral and sentimental emotions can trigger these tears. They communicate your emotions to others.

Emotional tears make you feel more vulnerable, which could improve your relationships. Crying often connects people, whether it’s out of grief, love, passion, or another strong emotion. Crying may cause others to be empathetic and compassionate toward you, softening anger or unpleasant emotion that caused the tears to flow in the first place.

Emotional tears contain more stress hormones and natural painkillers than other types of tears. They serve a therapeutic role, also known as “a good cry.” Emotional crying, which tends to make you feel better, may be a part of the healing process. But experts need more research to confirm this.

Some people are more likely to cry than others. For starters, women cry 60% more than men. Experts don’t exactly know why.

It could be because men:

  • Have smaller tear ducts
  • Usually have more testosterone, which may inhibit crying
  • Have less prolactin, a hormone that might promote tears
  • Are often encouraged not to cry

Studies show that people with secure relationship attachments are more comfortable showing emotion. They may cry more in normal and healthy settings, while those with insecure relationship attachments may cry at inappropriate times. Similar research suggests that people who avoid close relationships with others are less likely to cry and try harder to avoid tears. Those with clingy or dependent styles cry more often than those with secure relationships.

Crying can be normal in certain situations. But if you tear up frequently for no reason, it might be a sign of a serious condition.

If you notice that you’re crying every day during normal activities, you may have depression. Other symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling hopeless, helpless, sad
  • Loss of interest in day-to-day life
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Poor sleep
  • Excessive feelings of guilt or worthlessness

If you think you have depression, talk to your doctor right away to find the right treatment for you.

Other causes of uncontrollable tears include pathological laughing and crying, which is a condition that can come with Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, or other brain diseases. Talk to your doctor if you suspect you or a loved one has this condition.

If someone begins to cry in front of you, your reaction may come from the discomfort you feel in this situation. Though you may not mean to, your response could cause the person who is crying to feel weak, embarrassed, or less understood.

Instead of rushing to cheer a crier up or offer immediate help, sometimes it’s best to give a person space to cry. Sometimes we need to shed tears to process emotion.

If you’re around someone who is crying:

  • Acknowledge their sadness, embarrassment, or pain and show compassion toward their feelings.
  • Respect their tears. Let them release their feelings and show them you care.
  • Don’t rush to offer advice or to say anything at all. Give them space to process and relieve their tears.
  • After they let you know they’re ready to talk, help them navigate their emotions. Stay compassionate as you listen to why they cried and how they feel now.
  • Don’t talk too much. Let them think and organize their thoughts.
  • Accept the way they respond in the moment. Don’t push them to feel a different way.

It’s best not to hold in emotions all the time, but sometimes it’s important to hold back tears. If you need to control a cry, try to hold back your tears just until you’re in a better place for them. This way you won’t suppress your emotions altogether. You could excuse yourself from the situation and find somewhere more comfortable to release your tears. You could also distract yourself until you find another place to cry. Watch a funny video, read, or chat with a loved one to keep your mind off crying.