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…