updated 12/23/2008 11:31:22 AM ET 2008-12-23T16:31:22

A new study reveals why crying can feel so pointless.

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Psychologists at the University of South Florida and Tilburg University, Netherlands, analyzed volunteers' detailed accounts of more than 3,000 recent crying episodes and found that the benefits of crying depend entirely on the what, where and when of a particular crying episode.

For example, the effects of crying depend on who is shedding the tears. A majority of the volunteers reported improvements in their mood after a crying session, possibly from receiving social support during their episode. However, one third of the survey participants reported no improvement in mood and a tenth felt worse after they cried their emotions out.

Individuals with anxiety or mood disorders were least likely to experience the positive effects of crying.

Also, the researchers report that people who lack insight into their emotional lives (a condition known as alexithymia) actually feel worse after crying. This suggests that a lack of emotional insight may restrict the mind’s ability to transform an upsetting moment into something positive.

These findings are detailed in the December 2008 issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Pleasant memories of crying
Humans' propensity to shedding tears has had psychologists scratching their heads for a while. The question is how such a simple behavior as crying could benefit us.

It turns out that crying specifically helps control breathing to overcome the body’s negatively aroused state, University of South Florida researchers Jonathan Rottenberg and Lauren M. Bylsma and their Tilburg colleague found.

When a person experiences overwhelming stress and arousal, his or her heart rate increases and body begins to sweat. But as a person cries, his or her breathing slows, rendering a calming effect, Rottenberg said.

When the body tries to calm itself, the calming effect usually lasts longer than the unpleasant stress reaction that is associated with it, he said, suggesting why people tend to remember mostly the pleasant side of crying.

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