The tear trigger

It is largely accepted (though unconfirmed) that humans are the only animals with the ability to shed emotional tears. In the 1980s, Dr. William Fey, a researcher at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, established that reflex tears were composed mainly of water (98 percent) whereas emotional tears contained the stress hormone prolactin. Weeping, or emotional crying, is a necessary biological action triggered by the body to release toxins and provoke the “feel-good” factor people have after a good cry.  

Therapist Marisa Peer believes there are two main triggers to emotional tears: extreme emotion and the establishment of distress.

Establishing distress

If you see someone crying — a random person, a good friend, Julia Roberts in a movie — your instincts will kick in. The sight of somebody in tears within our proximity will draw us to them, either to help, protect or comfort them. Crying triggers our protective instinct, acting as a
sort of SOS. “Our need for and ability to offer protection, sympathy and empathy play a
crucial role in crying,” says Peer.

This idea goes way back in time, when men would go hunting, leaving the women and children behind. The women, left alone, would need a natural “signal” if they were in need of help, which may explain why most men tend to be less open about their emotions, and tend to be uncomfortable with crying in public (more so than women). Crying is an attention-grabbing action.

Think of a baby: The more someone cries, the more we want to take care of them.

The benefits

Let it out! Crying is an important stress release, a vital biological reaction for our emotional well-being. We feel better after we have cried — and often more relaxed and less tense.
Crying is a protective instinct, one that makes us more aware of the distress of those surrounding us.

Extreme emotion

Emotional tears release stress hormones, so crying helps us release psychological tension. The emotions can include fear, happiness, shock, pain or sadness. This explains why, after a fight or a fall, most people will well up ­— a reaction which can be difficult to control, especially when the feeling is intense. Peer explains that crying releases endorphins. “It’s the same hormone that is released during extreme physical exercise and sex, which explains why some people cry after having an orgasm.”


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