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Tears

Crying is an obvious way to express emotion. But tears may do more than express emotion. They may be involved in relieving emotion and reducing stress. A biochemist, Dr. William H. Frey, analyzed tears and found unusual levels of stress-related chemicals in them. (Brody, 1982)

What biological function might be performed by tears, aside from lubricating the eye?

Other exocrine processes, like exhaling, urinating, defecating, and sweating, all release potentially toxic substances from the body. Tears, it appears, are no exception. This may account for the subjective feeling of relief after a good cry, or the feeling of a need to cry building up after a long time without tears. Consistent with this, children who are unable to cry (due to a genetic defect) show exaggerated stress responses.

What are sex-related differences in reported frequency of crying?

After becoming interested in the stress-reducing function of tears, Frey asked several hundred volunteers in the Chicago area to keep a journal for several months indicating when and under what circumstances they cried. Women reported crying an average of five times a month, men an average of once a month. 45% of the men and 6% of the women did not cry at all during the time Frey collected data.

Some women (all normal) cried every day. Women were also more likely to report "a lump in the throat" and to shed tears. Men reported that, in over three-quarters of cases, tears "welled up" in their eyes but did not actually flow. Sobbing occurred in 14% of the women's crying incidents, 10% of the men's. Crying episodes lasted an average of six minutes for each occurrence, and that was the same for men and women.

When did most crying occur?

The most frequent trigger of crying was (1) arguments and (2) watching sad movies or television. Both tended to occur around 7 to 10 p.m. at night. One in five crying episodes was provoked by happiness rather than sadness or sympathy.

Does crying produce relief? Apparently this is true. 85% of the women and 73% of the men reported feeling better after crying. Frey believes crying episodes should not be halted; they should be allowed to continue because of the stress chemicals released by tears.


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