Using crying to cope: Physiological responses to stress following tears of sadness

Emotion. 2020 Oct;20(7):1279-1291. doi: 10.1037/emo0000633. Epub 2019 Jul 8.


This research tested the hypothesis that emotional crying facilitates coping and recovery, specifically through physiological changes that occur during crying. Female undergraduate students (N = 197) were randomly assigned to either a sad or neutral condition using short videos. Sad videos were selected for their extreme emotion elicitation. We predicted that compared to those who did not cry to the stimuli and those who were exposed to neutral videos, people who cried would (a) be able to withstand a stressful task for longer; (b) show lower levels of cortisol following crying and exposure to the stressor; and (c) have faster recovery (i.e., return to baseline levels of affect). The final groups consisted of the neutral group (n = 65), sad criers (n = 71), and sad noncriers (n = 61). After a 5-min baseline period, participants watched either the sad or neutral videos for 17 min and then completed a physical stressor (cold pressor test). Heart rate and respiration were continuously recorded, whereas salivary samples for cortisol were taken at 4 separate time points during testing. Analyses revealed no differences between the 3 groups in time withstanding the stressor or cortisol changes. Respiration rate, however, increased in the neutral group and noncriers while watching the videos, with criers' respiration remaining stable. Furthermore, heart rate was found to decelerate just before crying, with a return to baseline during the first crying period. These results suggest that crying may assist in generally maintaining biological homeostasis, perhaps consciously through self-soothing via purposeful breathing and unconsciously through regulation of heart rate. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Crying / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Sadness / psychology*
  • Young Adult