Crying may aid in the regulation of breathing during stressful situations, according to new research published in the journal Emotion. The study sought to better understand the functions of human crying — and whether crying had any physiologically soothing effects.
“We became interested in this topic when trying to understand the different possible ways that crying might function to help us, and to try to get a different perspective on why crying is so widely associated with feeling better,” explained study author Leah Sharman of the University of Queensland.
“One of the main ways that crying is often thought about is that it gets rid of toxins or brings about some kind of biological change that helps us to deal with stressful or painful situations. So we thought it would be interesting to try to test that.”
In the study, 197 female undergraduate students were randomly assigned to either watch sad or emotionally neutral videos for about 17 minutes. About half of the participants who watched the sad videos ended up crying. The participants then underwent the Cold Pressor Stress Test, in which they placed their hand in nearly freezing cold water.
During the experiment, the participants’ heart and respiration activity were monitored. They also provided saliva samples so that the researchers could measure their cortisol levels.
Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, participants who cried were not able to cope with the Cold Pressor Stress Test for a significantly longer time. There was also no significant difference observed in cortisol levels between those who cried and those who did not.
However, the researchers did find some evidence that participants who cried were more capable of regulating their breathing.
“Firstly, crying doesn’t seem to provide any change to stress hormones or our ability to cope with physical stressors to a degree that might be meaningful if you hurt yourself. Secondly, and what was our main finding, is that crying seems to assist in keeping our body stable and calm by slowing down and regulating our breathing and our heart rate,” Sharman told PsyPost.
Like all research, the study includes some limitations.
“The major caveat with this research is that we don’t know if these reactions are typical in real-world settings where you might be crying because of grief or loss, for example, or if there are differences if someone else is present with you when you cry,” Sharman said.
“It’s also important to note that because of the nature of this research we can’t force people to cry, so it’s also possible that there might be something different about people who are more likely to cry, especially in a laboratory setting, that makes them more likely to respond in this way.”
“Crying can be just as harmful as it is perceived helpful. In many situations people also believe that crying makes them feel judged, embarrassed, and ashamed. So if you believe makes you feel worse, these physiological changes are probably not going to make you feel better overall,” Sharman added.
The study, “Using Crying to Cope: Physiological Responses to Stress Following Tears of Sadness“, Leah S. Sharman, Genevieve A. Dingle, Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets, and Eric J. Vanman.