It’s the first thing most of us do when we enter this world: cry. And yet by the time we reach toddlerhood, we’re socialized to learn that crying is undesirable behavior. Big boys and girls don’t cry.
Why does our society censor this reflexive expression of emotion? Surely something so instinctual must have an evolutionary purpose.
This is the sentiment echoed by entrepreneur and author Hiroki Terai, the Japanese creator of crying therapy sessions. Over the past few years, his Tokyo-based crying sessions have gained popularity as a self-care method offering supposed mood-enhancing effects.
According to Terai, many people are stressed but are unable to cry at work or in front of their families. His sessions are designed to be an outlet for people to experience emotional release.
During a crying therapy session, people gather together to watch sad movies or listen to sad stories, with the hope that it will help them cry. Yoshiko Nishikawa, who made the 200-mile journey from Nagoya to Tokyo to attend a session, praised the effects. “I feel very refreshed; I’m surprised. Now that I cried, I feel better,” Nishikawa says.
The groups are usually run by a facilitator who may provide some basic counseling to those who need it. But participants aren’t required to talk about the crying, or how they feel after the videos end. Terai emphasizes that the stress-relieving effects are mainly found in the simple act of crying. “It’s been said that one drop of tear has the effect of relieving stress for a week,” Terai says.
The first Tokyo-based crying therapy session organized by Terai was held in 2013. Since then, he has added an extra element to the classes, which he feels enhances their effectiveness. Terai now intentionally hires attractive men as class facilitators. Not only do they lead in the crying by shedding tears first, but they also assist participants in wiping away their tears. He feels having an attractive person lead the group adds to the emotional intensity of the session.
Looking at a group of adults participate in communal crying may raise some eyebrows. But is there some validity to crying as stress relief?
Does crying make us feel better?
The answer isn’t so straightforward. Yes, some people do feel better after a good cry. But research has shown that many report feeling worse, too.
In addition, the mood-boosting feeling people get after crying may not actually be due to the act itself. “Crying is a strong signal to others that someone needs help or comfort,” says Leah Sharman, a PhD candidate in Psychology at The University of Queensland, who specializes in the study of emotions. “When support is provided by someone known to the crier, they tend to feel better than people who cried but don’t receive help from people around them.” So it may be that the comfort we receive from others is what leads us to feel better, rather than the act of crying itself.
Those who experience positive effects from crying often describe their benefit in cathartic terms. Many feel that it somehow aids in the process of expressing strong emotions. And when these emotions are “released” through crying, it makes them feel better.
How one experiences crying actually depends on several factors, including why you are crying, whether the issue that prompted you to cry was resolved, and most importantly, your beliefs about crying.
A joint study conducted by psychologists from the University of Oxford and the University of Konstanz validates the idea that your beliefs about crying affect how you feel after crying. They examined the motivations behind why some people let it all out when crying as opposed to suppressing tears. They asked participants to recall previous upsetting situations, and how they reacted to them.
Participants who tended to increase the intensity of their crying reportedly did so because they believed it helped them feel better.
However, not everyone holds crying in such a positive light. “Some people think that crying in front of other people makes them feel embarrassed. Or that crying alone makes them feel even lonelier,” Sharman says. “So crying and how good you feel from it are context dependent and individually determined.”
Sharman also adds that it’s difficult to understand whether the subjective perception of feeling better after crying is due to the act itself, or is simply the result of time passing. “After crying, we usually feel less distressed over time. This is likely less to do with the crying itself, and more to do with the passage of time. But these two things together — our bodies returning to normal and a reduction in distress over time — easily make it seem like crying is working to make us feel better,” Sharman says.
Does crying reduce stress?
Most of the studies mentioned above examined crying in reaction to spontaneous stressors in everyday life.
Yet, Terai suggests that the stress-reducing powers of crying can be harnessed when done on a regular basis — even without any specific stressor as a trigger. He feels crying is equivalent to any other self-care activity, such as having a warm cup of tea or taking a relaxing bath after a stressful day.
Unfortunately, the current research doesn’t support this idea of a stress-relieving crying habit. Sharman and colleagues conducted a recent study where they measured peoples’ physiological responses to physical stress, and whether it differed for people who did and didn’t cry. The participants watched sad movies to encourage crying, and they did this while putting their hand in icy cold water (a form of physical stress).
“We found crying had no effect on stress levels, and people weren’t able to withstand pain more readily than those who did not cry. But those who cried were more in control of their breathing rate. This suggests people may hold their breath during crying in a bid to calm themselves down, and perhaps use the crying behavior to initiate the calming strategy,” Sharman writes.
The biggest benefit of Terai’s crying therapy sessions may be interpersonal emotional support. “Crying in a ‘crying therapy session’ might be helpful if a person is feeling sad and could use that group for support or comfort if they are comfortable crying in a public space,” Sharman says.
Cry, but only if you want to
As it turns out, the idea that crying is good for our well-being is actually not strongly supported by the current research. Most experts believe that it’s more of a way for us to signal that we need comfort, rather than a mechanism to regulate our mood.
That being said, your subjective experience of feeling better may still make it worthwhile. “Crying is a personal process. Whether you cry, and how often, may be related to your culture, gender, and emotional expressiveness,” writes Sharman. “Whether crying actually helps is also part of our personal judgment. Some say crying makes them feel worse than if they didn’t cry. Others may cry because they believe it is helpful and cathartic.”
So if you’re in the pro-crying camp, go ahead and shed a tear when you feel like it. You’ll most likely feel better afterward.