It’s been a rough week and you feel exhausted, and suddenly you find yourself crying over a fun diaper commercial. Or maybe you’ve caught a cold or the coronavirus and only feel like crying because your partner has used up all the milk.
You can indeed feel sad because you are sick or tired, but why the tears? Why can’t you keep things together?
Tears have multiple psychological functions. Tears act as a physical indicator of our inner emotional state and occur when we feel intense sadness or intense joy.
In our brain, strong emotions activate the central autonomic network. This network consists of two parts: the sympathetic system (which activates our fight or flight response when we perceive danger) and the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts the body in a state of rest.
Strong emotions activate the sympathetic part of this system, but when we cry, the parasympathetic part is activated, making us feel better.
What happens when we are stressed or tired?
We are trained from an early age to control our emotions, with socially sanctioned times to express emotions, abstaining from physical manifestations of negative emotions. For example, crying during a sad movie is fine, but crying at work is usually perceived as less acceptable.
The prefrontal cortex, or the cool, thinking part of our brain, responds to the emotional signals delivered by the central autonomic network and helps us regulate the emotional response to deal with our emotions in controlled ways. The prefrontal cortex is like your computer’s main processor, managing tasks to keep the system functioning properly.
Unfortunately, the more stressed and fatigued we are, or if we experience extended periods of physical or emotional pain, the sympathetic system remains activated. The prefrontal cortex becomes overloaded, like a computer running too many programs at once.
The brain becomes less able to regulate our emotions in the expected ways, resulting in visible emotional responses, such as tears or angry outbursts. We may not even realize how overwhelmed we are until tears stream down our faces after a seemingly minor incident or experience.
Some people cry earlier than others. Women tend to cry more than men, although the extent to which this is due to biological aspects versus society’s expectations is unclear.
People who score high on the personality traits empathy or neuroticism cry more often. Excessive crying can also be a physical indication of depression, as the brain is flooded with emotional pain.
What’s the use of tears?
In addition to psychological reasons, tears play several social roles. Even if our society disapproves of strong expressions of emotions, tears actually help create and maintain social bonds.
Tears can act as a cry for help and visibly show others that we are not okay and need support. Tears often arouse feelings of sympathy in others, which helps us connect with them. Tears can also occur when we feel deep sympathy for another person, crying along with them, further strengthening social bonds.
In addition to psychological and social reasons, there are also physical reasons for tears. For example, when we are tired, we work hard to keep our eyes open, which dries out the eyes. Our bodies produce tears to counteract the dryness and keep the eyes moist so that we can see clearly.
Watery eyes are also common in respiratory illnesses such as the common cold, the flu, and the coronavirus. When we have an infection in the body, white blood cells are mobilized to fight the bug. These extra white blood cells can inflame the blood vessels in the eye, which clogs the eye canals and causes tears.
Tears are a natural part of human functioning. Especially with the pressures that the past few years have brought, sometimes there’s nothing better than a good cry to relieve overwhelming emotions. But if you find yourself crying excessively, it may be helpful to talk to your doctor about possible physical or psychological causes.
Peggy Kern, Associate Professor, University of Melbourne
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.