Why Does Everything Make Me Cry?
A look at the science behind why some people cry all the time — and others never do
As a frequent crier, I’ve discovered there’s a wide range of crying behaviors: There are the people who cry as frequently as they, say, pee, those who think of tears as eyeball invaders, and everyone in between. In times like these, when people are coping with stress in a variety of ways, I have some questions. How could it be that for many — like me — crying is a daily routine, while other people remain stoic even when reading horrifying news about the coronavirus outbreak or watching a devastating film? We’re of the same species after all.
As infants, humans cry for survival. But, as we learn to speak, crying shifts from a biological necessity to an empathetic response. Humans are unique in this — no other mammals are known to cry emotional tears. In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, behavioral neurologist Michael Trimble writes that “brain circuits are activated, rapidly and unconsciously, when we see another in emotional distress,” and that the evolution of these circuits has “made civilization, and an ethics based on compassion, possible.” This is a scientific way of explaining something that’s actually quite magical: Crying is the basis of what makes us human. It allows us to be vulnerable while alerting the world to our existence. We cry to be heard, but also to let others know that we hear them.
Crying swiftly communicates an intense emotional state — like glee or amusement or sorrow — that can often feel impossible to capture in language. It’s the equivalent of sticking a name tag to your forehead that reads: “Hello, the water balloon that is my brain has burst; I know you understand.” But there are only certain places we feel comfortable allowing that balloon to pop, according to Lauren Bylsma, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. “People are more likely to cry in a situation in which it is socially acceptable and in which they are more likely to receive positive reactions from others (that is, at home with one or two other close friends versus in a professional setting around many strangers or acquaintances).” It’s likely that those of us who “cry about everything” experience a greater frequency of intimate interactions in their day-to-day lives and spend more time in the company of people we can be our true selves with, she says.
Gender may also play a role. A 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that women are more likely to cry than men due to hormonal differences that begin around puberty. “Testosterone, the male hormone, seems to inhibit crying,” says Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist and professor at Tilburg University. However, it may also be that men are not given the social permission to show such emotion. Modern culture still urges men to suppress their weaknesses and stray from strong emotions, and gives women more permission to express emotions openly (and often even paints them as volatile beings who use emotion as a tool of manipulation, a narrative ever-present in the art and literary canon — just think of Shakespeare).
Crying is the basis of what makes us human. It allows us to be vulnerable while alerting the world to our existence.
No matter the cause, crying is a lifeline to expressing the rich, messy thoughts that words can only approximate. “Maybe we cannot know the real reason we are crying,” writes poet Heather Christle in The Crying Book, an exploration of tears, “maybe we do not cry about, but near or around. Maybe all our explanations are stories constructed after the fact.” After I cry I often experience a sensation that some dwindling light has just been flickered back to life — I am reawakened to my own narrative.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that crying is a reaction to feeling truly helpless in the moment. “Crying signals to yourself and other people that there’s some important problem that is at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope,” Jonathan Rottenberg, an emotion researcher and professor of psychology at the University of South Florida told TIME in 2016. “It very much is an outgrowth of where crying comes from originally.”
While there is no conclusive evidence as to why some people never cry, Bylsma and Vingerhoets both say that factors like medication, disease, depression, and trauma can result in the complete discontinuation of crying. Though it’s not always the case. “I would caution people from pathologizing what may be normal variation in behavior,” says Bylsma, “unless it is causing significant distress or impairment in someone’s social functioning.”
To better understand my own crying, I kept a list of all the things that made me cry for one week. The range was startling. I cried at films and car commercials, at sentimental TV show scenes I’d seen a thousand times over. I cried while struggling to get dressed for a night out — and on that night out, I cried watching an elderly musician perform to a sea of dancing young people. What unites these moments? They all contain highly concentrated bursts of life’s most extreme emotions — so intense that the words were knocked right out of me. As a writer, my identity is rooted in my ability to communicate. In the frustrating moments when I temporarily lose this ability, crying is a kind of stopgap. Without it, I’d be trapped in my feelings.
I also noticed that I tend to cry in private spaces. Even the lone public experience of watching the elderly musician felt like a private one given that the crowd was packed, which supports Bylsma’s point about the situational triggers of crying. The irony is that, despite these moments happening largely in private, I nearly always cried while witnessing other human connections. Perhaps this was due to feeling excluded. Or perhaps it was a celebration of all the lives that were quite literally flashing before me — a quiet hoorah to life itself.