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Explanations > Behaviors > Coping > Crying

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When people cannot emotionally cope with a situation, one option is to burst into tears.

Younger children readily cry. Women are more likely to cry than men, who may get to a point where they want to cry, but cannot.

Crying can appear at different levels of noticeability, from silent tears to loud and heart-rending sobs.


A person hears that one of their work projects has been stopped. They feel like crying but hold it in until they get home, where they burst into tears of frustration and sadness when telling their partner all about it.

A child cannot find a toy and burst into tears, wailing until their parent finds and returns it.

A man hears that an old friend has died. He sits alone, silent tears rolling down his face.


Crying is a human expression of an extreme emotional state, usually sadness and distress. It can be cathartic, creating a release that enables a person to subsequently function more effectively. One reason we feel better after crying is that it releases the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which is associated with stress.

Distressed crying by a person can come from:

  • Pain: The person feeling significant physical pain.
  • Loss: When something (or someone) to which they are attached is (or will be) taken from them.
  • Fear: When they are threatened in some way and imagine future harm or distress.
  • Guilt: When they find a bad act they have committed has been discovered or when they realize the error of their ways.
  • Frustration: An inability to get what they want, despite efforts.
  • Depression: A deep sadness with an inability to see a way out.

Childhood cries may originate in evolutionary situations where it helps parents locate a lost child.

Crying is often a very visible call for help from others, and a person who is crying is typically seeking comfort. This starts in childhood where crying children get attention and comfort from parents or carers. Later, it can be a reversion to this child state when they seek comforting parent substitutes (typically a partner or friends).

Crying is not always attention-seeking and can be embarrassing when done in public or in work and hence may suppressed. People may cry in private as they express their anguish without fear of others thinking they are weak.

When one person cries, natural empathy is stimulated in others, perhaps that programmed in to help children. The other person may feel like crying themself, particularly if they are in the same situation. A good mutual cry can deepen relationships.

Crying may be a form of apology or appeasement. From an evolutionary perspective, the blurring of vision indicates that the person is unable to attack and is making themselves vulnerable as an 'offering'.

Curiously, tears can also appear when a person is amused or joyful. In both cases, the cause is still extreme emotion.

So what?

When a person cries, do not say 'Don't cry' as this is usually means it is making you feel distressed and you are trying to reduce your own distress as much as theirs. It is better to say something like 'It's OK' and to comfort them in an appropriate way. Let them cry as long as they wish.

If you feel like crying, it can be easier if you do it when with friends or people you can trust to support you and who will not think less of you.

See also

Sadness, Evolution


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