Crying, in the traditional sense, is a uniquely human phenomena. Humans are the only animals to shed tears in response to strong emotional experiences (Cook, 2013). There are several theories as to why humans relay emotions in this way.
Evolutionary scientists believe that humans developed emotional crying to serve a social function. These theorists suggest that crying provides a visual (and sometimes auditory) signal to nearby people that you are in need of social support and nurturing (Bylsma et al., 2018). In addition to signaling for help, it is also believed that crying plays a role in producing prosocial behavior in onlookers. Studies have shown that individuals who are crying are seen as more friendly and likeable and make nearby individuals feel more connected to the person crying (Vingerhoets et al., 2016).
More recently, some scientists have suggested that crying may also play a role in self-soothing. Tears produced by emotional experiences (unlike tears produced from cutting onions, yawning, etc…) lead to a reduction in cortisol (the stress hormone), while causing increased levels of endogenous opioids (such as enkephalins and endorphins) which positively impact one’s mood (Gracanin et al., 2014).
In reality, crying likely serves all of the purposes outlined above and more. Humans are designed to cry, so the next time you feel like holding back your tears, let them flow. Use it as an opportunity to experience a sensation that is uniquely human and enjoy the emotional benefits you feel when all is said and done.