The Crying Game? When crying is good for you – and when it isn’t.

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen


The Crying Game? When crying is good for you, and when it isn’t.

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen

Andy Murray will be remembered for crying after his Wimbledon Final just as much for his gutsy tennis. He said, through his tears, he was getting closer to eventual victory – but is his emotional reaction revealing the real truth of the matter? Does this dramatic weeping predict future performance in similar high stress situations?

The latest psychological research on whether crying is useful for us suggests that the media consensus on Murray’s tears being fine (see how the nation warmed to him) may be missing an important point.

In a study published in 2008 entitled ‘When is crying cathartic? An international study’, psychologists Lauren Bylsma, Ad Vingerhoets and Jonathan Rottenberg from the University of South Florida and Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, found that crying is not necessarily always so good for us.

When asked to recall their last episode of weeping, most reported feeling better afterwards, so it seems at first glance, crying must be a good thing – the release of tension it’s associated with means we generally feel psychologically better after crying. This fits with another curious finding from previous research, which is that the more severely clinically depressed often seem, paradoxically, less able to cry.

But analysing deeper the latest data should lead us to wonder if crying is always beneficial, and therefore whether Murray’s outburst is in fact good for him in the longer term.

Bylsma, Vingerhoets and Rottenberg point out that studies exposing subjects to sad movies found mostly a negative effect of shedding tears. Those who cried while watching a sad film tended to be more depressed afterwards, compared to those who did not cry. When we get upset our physiology is profoundly affected, yet mixed findings means the jury is still out on whether heart rate and blood pressure recover more rapidly after a crying spell, which is surprising, if crying was that good for you.

Perhaps the rather cold indifferent atmosphere of a laboratory means crying doesn’t get a chance to perform as powerfully as it does in real life. After all, nothing binds us together or makes others more sympathetic and helpful to us than the natural human response to tears. Criticism of Murray’s performance during the match itself has been almost completely deflected by his crying, which demonstrates the true clout of tears. What other force on the planet could produce such a total media somersault in coverage of this character, viewed before as truculent and aloof, by the unforgiving press?

To get more properly to the bottom of crying, one of the largest studies on sobbing to date, was published in 2011 by Bylsma and Rottenberg with colleagues, who asked 97 female students, average age 20, to keep a crying and mood diary for approximately two months.

The study, entitled, ‘When and for whom does crying improve mood? A daily diary study of 1004 crying episodes’ found that in two months, the average young woman cries 10 times. Previous research has found the equivalent number for men is around two times over the same period.

The study was published in the ‘Journal of Research in Personality’ and reports the average duration of crying of 8 min, and they were most often in the living room (40.1%) or bedroom (28.6%). Most were either alone (37.9%) or with one other person (39.8%). The most common reasons for crying were conflict (16.3%), loss (13.5%) or witnessing the suffering of others (13.1%).

A key finding of the study with particular relevance to any elite athlete for whom emotional control is going to be vital in predicting future success, is that those who are more prone to cry also suffer more mood variability. The study found emotionally laden tears were followed by a period of worsened mood, with no apparent benefit.

In other words, crying was not seen by these researchers as generally good for us.

However, 30 percent of crying episodes, a distinct minority, was associated with mood improvement and these seem to be when weeping occurred with greater intensity (but not duration). Perhaps more intense crying may be more likely to attract social support – an echo of the Andy Murray incident?

The authors conclude that, generally, crying is not good for us, except for those specific moments when others around us, because they are close to us, are going to be positively supportive and responsive to our tears. If we experience a resolution to the difficult circumstances that caused the crying episode, perhaps because of the new sympathy of others, or we achieve a new more positive understanding of the predicament through our tears, then in these special circumstances, crying is good for us. Expressing grief does sometimes lead us to a different and better understanding of ourselves.

Crying appears to be particularly unhelpful if we cry in the presence of others who’ll be unsympathetic. But in Murray’s case it appears to have rallied the nation, which might be useful in future on-court battles.

We cry when we are not able to solve a serious problem we’re confronted with. Tears represent an energy that would be better used in acting on a solution and crying appears particularly unhelpful where we have little control over the upsetting incident, such as witnessing suffering or conflict.

Andy may have solved one crisis by crying – he has now galvanised a nation to support him.

But crying would not have helped with the other emergencies he so bravely faced on the tennis court. The tears might be a sign he was at a complete loss, and this could be worrying for the future, if he doesn’t get the right support to help him through this.

Because no matter how much support he has from those close to him and the entire country, tennis remains the loneliest game. Andre Agassi once said; ‘Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players – and yet boxers have their corner men and managers… The rules forbid a tennis player from even talking to… (the) coach while on the court’.

As some suggest, in tennis, as in life, the only person we ever really lose against, is ourselves.

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