We know the drill. Big girls don't cry; boys—big or little—don't cry at all.
But don't they really? And why shouldn't they? Even though we've all felt the need to cry at one time or another it can be too easy to disparage someone else's need to cry. We may forget those experiences of our own which have prompted such a need, or deny someone else's need on the basis that we've survived our own drama—and after all, how could theirs be worse?
Why do stigmas attached to the act of crying persist? Why do some people avoid this display of emotion at all costs, even if an event justifies a crying response?
Sadly, some people can't cry because of physical restrictions imposed by diseases such as emphysema. But others restrain themselves for social reasons. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with expressing their emotions, especially in the presence of others. However, researchers writing in December's issue of the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science suggest that it is precisely in the presence of supportive others that crying is most beneficial.
"Crying behavior punctuates the lifecourse," begins psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg and his colleagues, "from our start as helpless infants through adulthood, . . . tears can mark both our most important moments and the most mundane of events. A capacity to cry is part of being human."
The researchers then ask the obvious question: "Is it important for our well-being?" Acknowledging that some laboratory situations fail to uncover the benefits of crying while others have done so with certainty, the researchers set out to analyze the cause of the divergent results and to ascertain whether (and when) crying may indeed be beneficial.
In the process, they came up with two reasons why some studies fail to reproduce positive results: the imprecise timing of their measurements and failure to provide a social context within the studies.
Why do these factors matter so much?
As crying episodes unfold, they begin with arousing effects (such as increased heart rate) but they also develop calming effects (such as slowed breathing). Depending on the timing of measurements, the distress and arousal effects could be more prominent than the calming effects—which actually last much longer than the arousing effects.
But according to Rottenberg and his associates, social context proved to be especially important in the final analysis. "Criers who received social support during their crying episode were more likely to report mood benefits than were criers who did not report receiving social support," they said. "Likewise, mood benefits were more likely when the precipitating events of a crying episode had been resolved than they were when events were unresolved."
Though these points may seem self-evident to anyone outside the laboratory who has cried on a friend's shoulder, unfortunately many past studies have failed to factor in any kind of social context.
Other factors that affect the benefits of a crying episode include individual personality traits as well as the affective state of the person crying. For instance, the researchers found that patients with mood disorders or anxiety symptoms were less likely to reap the benefits of their crying episodes.
However, other studies have shown that people with mood disorders and anxiety symptoms do reap the benefits of social support.
Their conclusion? "Additional laboratory and field studies are needed to isolate specific features in the social environment that mediate psychological benefits, whether these are situational characteristics, physical comforting behaviors (such as an arm around one's shoulder), or other types of social support (such as verbal behaviors)."
Though most of us will wait with bated breath for the results of any studies to be done along these lines, anyone who has been on the receiving end of these support behaviors could probably already hazard a wild guess as to what will be found.