If you’ve ever started crying out of anger or frustration, you know it’s the worst. It feels unnatural — like an alien reaction. Your tear ducts have gone rogue. They’ve betrayed you. You want to be indignant with your head held high, but instead your head is in your increasingly wet hands.
The reason we react this way when we’re mad or angry is an interesting combination of science and psychology. On a scientific level, our tear ducts just aren’t that advanced, explains Robert R. Provine, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond. “Only humans produce emotional tears,” he says. “And these emotional tears are recently evolved… While vocal crying is present in babies at birth, emotional tears don’t appear until three months after birth, which is a sign of recent evolution.” Provine explains that means these tears aren’t finely tuned to our specific emotions. So, although we tend to think of crying as a reaction to sadness or grief, our brains and tear ducts can’t differentiate between our specific emotions. That’s why you might have the same crying reaction to being mad, stressed, super happy, or sad. “Tears are not a precise signal,” he says. “They’re not broadly tuned to our emotions, and they’re less nuanced than we think they might be.”
Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., chair of the department of counseling and higher education at Northern Illinois University, adds that tears are a healthy way for us to express our intense emotions. It’s a coping mechanism that lets you come to terms with your frustration. It lets us air our grievances out in the open — whether we want to or not. It stops us from internalizing.
“Crying helps us manage our feelings, and, from a biological standpoint, it forces us to breath and requires taking a deep breaths, which keeps our heart rate slow,” Degges-White says. “It’s a self-soothing mechanism that the body has built in. It’s productive.”
But, especially when we’re mad at work or in public, there are times we wish we could hold these tears back. They often get the better of us. “It’s an honest signal — it’s hard to fake,” he says.” It’s a way for us to communicate our emotional state with other individuals. One some level, it’s a solicitation of caregiving.”
To be totally upfront, I’m not someone who gets mad easily. But I’ve definitely cried out of frustration. The last time this happened to me, I was in the middle of a half marathon. I was grooving along in the 10th mile, and I was on a runner’s high. I was pumped up, and hoping to break my time. My playlist was pumping me up with some old school Hannah Montana. And then something in my knee started to pull. I tried to keep running, but I couldn’t do it. I felt like a horse being held back by reins that just wanted to gallup and be free. I had to walk the rest of the race, and I started crying. Not really from pain, but from frustration.
As it happens, when people saw me crying, they helped me and got me ice. I wouldn’t have asked for that on my own. Perhaps biology was looking out for me that day. My tears asked for help when my mouth couldn't. Or maybe I’m just a crybaby. Either way, the ice was good for my IT band.
So, next time you feel like crying out of anger, petulance, or frustration, and you’re so annoyed at your body for doing this embarrassing thing to you, remember that this biological function might have your back more than you think.