It happens to the best of us. When you’re deep in a bout of crying, drowning in your own tears like shrunken Alice on her way to Wonderland, you feel like you might actually cry yourself into oblivion, or float away in a small glass jar, never to be seen or heard again.
Sometimes, you’ve cried so hard that you swear you popped a blood vessel in your cheek, the redness takes so long to fade, and your eyes are swollen shut the next morning like you suffered the world’s worst hay fever. Which is exactly what you’ll tell everybody you have to see that day.
Though desperate crying can feel like the most abysmal part of the human experience, it actually serves a pretty important purpose.
The kind of tears we release as a response to extreme emotion are called psychic, or florid, tears. We shed two other types tears — basal, and reflex — but those serve to lubricate or cleanse the eyes.
It’s the psychic tears that we let forth when we cry. We produce these tears as a response to all the feels: sadness, frustration, anger, pleasure, or pain.
And when we’re so doing, our body is doing all sorts of things, for all sorts of reasons.
1Our body goes into evolutionary survival tactic mode.
Tears send a signal to those closest to us that tells them we need their help. The vulnerability we show when we’re crying brings people closer to us, which might actually save us from certain doom.
2Our brain protects our eyeballs.
Though we cry psychic tears when under extreme emotion, psychic tears come with a superpower of sorts: a perfect, calming recipe of endorphins and painkilling cues to help soothe the iris. So, when in the throws of a psychic crying fit, your neurotransmitters send down some trusty basal tears to protect your eyes, and help calm you down, like a chill pill for your peepers.
3Our noses run.
When your nervous system gets the cue from our emotions, your lacrimal system jumps into gear, producing and draining tears at the same time. The lacrimal gland is located between your lid and eyeball. When you blink reflexively, your eyelid spreads a tear across your eye and drains it into a duct which flows into the nose. And that’s when you look your most attractive.
4We purge toxins.
There’s something to that old adage, “have a good cry.” Crying enhances your mood and physical state. No joke. It’s actually kind of a lot good for you.
Some scientists assert that chemicals build up in the body during times of elevated stress. When we emotionally cry, our body rids itself of these toxins and waste products. (Million-dollar idea: a crying-cleanse retreat in some far-off place like Malibu or the French Riviera.)
In fact, some research indicates that stifling emotional tears can cause health problems, like an elevated risk of heart disease and hypertension.
5We feel calmer (after the fact).
Since we release a surplus of stress hormones like cortisol and prolactin when we cry, we feel calmer after a good cry. Biology!
6We get what we need.
As infants, we cry to have our most basic needs fulfilled. If we’re hungry, sleepy, dirty, gassy or uncomfortable, we cry so that a caretaker can swoop in and fix the problem.
7We get what we want.
Later (as early as 10-months-old), our crying goals shift to gaining attention for other reasons. Some experts believe this is when we begin learning the art of manipulative crying. As we all know, some people carry this craft into the rest of their lives, becoming true masters at getting what they want by tearing up. Respect.