Why It Might Be Good To Be A Big Crybaby

It came out of nowhere. Hit me like a Mack truck. My  husband and I were sitting and watching “CBS Sunday Morning” yesterday like we usually do, and they did a segment on tearjerker movies (which are, apparently and regrettably, in increasingly short supply). They interviewed Leonard Maltin, and he brought up the clip from Disney’s “Dumbo,” where Timothy Q. Mouse takes Dumbo to visit his mother, who’s been locked up as a “mad elephant” after losing her temper when Dumbo is teased for his oversized ears. Hearing Timothy call to her that he’s brought her a visitor, and seeing Dumbo’s trunk reaching up over the edge of the cell window, Dumbo’s mom stretches to the edge of her shackles, extends her trunk out and caresses him as big tears form in his eyes and he buries his face in her trunk. She then lifts him and swings him gently back and forth while singing him a lullaby.


I’m not usually a big crier, but I just lost it. My eyes immediately filled with hot tears, and they overflowed onto my cheeks before I even knew what was happening. Now, it may be partly because I’m pregnant with our first child and hormones and budding maternal instincts are running amok, but I’m getting weepy again now just remembering it again. Seriously? I’ve seen “Dumbo!” I’m familiar with this scene! I don’t remember losing it like that before. What’s happening to me? I’m a mess!

Anyway, everyone’s probably heard some variation on the suggestion to “cry it out, you’ll feel better?” Though I don’t cry all that often, I can’t argue with the fact that, after I’ve succumbed to a bout of hearty waterworks, I do feel better. It’s like I’m lighter, or somehow emotionally “washed clean.” All this just from allowing myself to expel hot, salty water from my eyes, get all sniffly and puffy and turn into a blubbering mess for a few minutes. Research has shown I’m not alone — about nine out of 10 people report improved mood after indulging in a good cry.

But are the benefits of crying all emotional? Turns out there may be a physical component, too. Emotional tears come from the lacrimals, the same glands that produce the continuous (basal) tears that lubricate our eyes, keeping them free of irritants, and the reflex tears that are produced en masse to flush out introduced irritants or objects (like when I go to take out my contact lenses and forget I was chopping jalapeno peppers only a couple hours before…OUCH). The difference is in the composition of the tears themselves: among other compounds, non-emotional tears contain powerful antibacterial and antiviral enzymes, useful for day-to-day eye health; emotional tears have higher levels of some proteins, manganese and potassium, and protein-based hormones like prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and leucine enkephalin, all of which are produced by our bodies when under stress.

The different composition of emotional and non-emotional tears suggests some support for the idea that emotional crying helps get our bodies back in balance after a stressful event, helping us flush out chemicals that build up in our bodies when we’re under duress. Stress hormones have been shown to damage virtually all bodily systems. In our brains, stress hormones target the hippocampus, hypothalamus and pre-frontal cortex, causing damage to brain cells in those areas. Elsewhere in the body, biomedical studies have shown that stress hormones negatively impact the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine, musculoskeletal, and immune systems.

Given this, there’s some evidence that our ability to emotionally cry (which is unique to humans — no other animal cries for emotional reasons) and release these harmful stress hormones has value toward our survival. So, do something nice for yourself today and find a reason to shed a tear. For me, all I need to do is watch that clip from “Dumbo” again, or one of those blasted ASPCA commercials with Sarah McLachlan, or listen to Kid Rock’s song “Born Free,” which will always be associated with memories of a good friend we lost last fall in a motorcycle accident, and I’d be doing myself a world of good. Given his reaction during the CBS Sunday Morning piece on tearjerkers, my husband could maybe watch “Brian’s Song” or “This Old Cub” again. How about you? What’s your trigger? Why not pull it today? Your body will thank you for it.

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Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.

One thoughtful comment

  1. I am SO GLAD I’m not alone in crying over the ASPCA spots. I think crying is a healthy, cathartic activity. Take a look at Holly Hunter’s character in the movie Broadcast News and you’ll understand that crying is a great stress reliever. Thanks for sharing the DUMBO clip, and thankfully the box of tissues on my desk was not empty this time.

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