Lamisa Fairooz woke up on a warm October morning hankering to play video games. As the second year Graphic Design major played, she found herself losing time after time. Engulfed with frustration, she cried.

Crying affects everyone for biological and emotional reasons throughout life.This can affect college students who have heavy workloads, unprecedented stress levels and overwhelming emotions in particular. Even the simplest of things, such as losing in a video game, can be enough for the tears to start flowing, and it has been since we first entered this world.

Crying is something we are born knowing how to do. A baby’s first cry signals that they are breathing on their own because, up until that point, the umbilical cord had provided the fetus with oxygen. 

Michael O’Connor, an adjunct professor in the College of Health Sciences and Technology, also said that for babies, crying is a natural form of communication.

“Babies don’t have a lot of good ways to communicate ... they will cry and they will receive attention,” he stated.

O’Connor described his own experience with his children when they were little.

“I have two sons and as they were growing up, I whittled it down that babies cry for one of five reasons ... at least with my kids,” he said. “They’re hungry, they’re tired, they’re angry, they’re sick or they’re cold ... and sometimes they just want to be held, too.”

Types of Tears

There are three kinds of tears: basal, reflex and emotional. Basal tears keep the eyes from drying out, whereas reflex tears respond to foreign irritants. Emotional tears are triggered by a host of factors, such as pain or sadness. As we grow and develop, the role of crying in our lives changes. From a purely biological standpoint, O’Connor said, tears are used to lubricate the eyes.

“Other things that may cause an increase in tear production would be some sort of irritant: a physical touch or [if] something flew into your eye ... your eye would increase tear production just to kind of wash it out,” he said.

Amy E. Rosechandler, a licensed mental health therapist who works for Counseling and Psychological Services at RIT, talked about tears as pain indicators.

“Crying is definitely a way to indicate how much pain we are in, and the intensity of our tears, our crying, is directly related to the intensity of pain,” she said.

Emotional tears contain different chemicals: a pain reducing neurotransmitter called leucine enkephalin and adrenocorticotropic hormones, which indicate high-stress levels. These chemicals are released when the body experiences stress. Crying can act as a way to decrease that stress. Shedding these tears can benefit a multitude of people, as it may provide respite from difficult situations.

“The idea is never to block out emotions or crying, but to not become overwhelmed by them or consumed too much.”

“I do think tears are a relieving thing.” Rosechandler said. “It’s something that relieves us of some physical tension ... If something is intensely relieving, we’ll probably cry.”

The effects of crying vary from person to person, though. For people who suffer from depression or mood disorders, crying might not help. Instead, those people are likely to feel worse.

Crying as Communication

Not only can crying help to release pain, but it also acts as communication. Even after we learn language as our primary way to communicate, Rosechandler believes that we don’t truly outgrow crying as a way to express our feelings to others.

“The basic importance of crying is ... to elicit help and care from other people as a social communicator,” she said.

In the presence of the right people, crying can be a healthy release of emotion that is known to have positive effects; long cries can release oxytocin, have soothing effects and improve mood.

Feeling and Understanding Emotions

From a social perspective, crying sometimes brings people closer together. Empathy — the ability to understand and experience another person's emotions from their viewpoint — is human by nature. Nicholas DiFonzo, a psychology professor, believes we are empathetic because of the love we may feel towards the person in distress.

“When I see someone else in pain, because I have some level of feeling for that person of liking or love, I’ll also feel their pain. Sometimes, I’ll cry,” he said.

However, the ability to empathize doesn’t necessarily translate to one’s own vulnerability. Liz Brugger, a first year Industrial Design major, keeps most of her emotions inside, despite understanding others’.

“I’m very empathetic ... I can gauge emotions off of others and help them out, but I’m never fully gonna release mine onto the world,” she said. “It’s like Pandora’s Box: no one wants them.”

Fourth year Computer Science major Evan Hirsh said that he has lots of experience with stress-related crying and recently began learning how to manage and cope with his own emotions through daily meditation.

“Emotions are fine to feel,” he said. “The idea is never to block out emotions or crying, but to not become overwhelmed by them or consumed too much.”

People who weep in the presence of a support system such as a friend, family member or other trusted individual are found to have a more therapeutic cry. Our comfort levels with those around us may also contribute to how easily we feel that we can open up to them. 

“As we grow up, we’re kind of shaped to figure out who is going to take care of our needs and our intense vulnerability,” Rosechandler stated. “Whether it’s safe to be vulnerable with someone or not is probably how we’ll decide if we can cry.”

RIT's Counseling and Psychological Services offers students a range of support options, including individual appointments, group counseling and referrals to community resources. Even if you prefer to handle your emotions alone, Rosechandler said that something good happens by taking the time to have a good cry.

“It definitely gets something out,” she said.