Tears are a strange phenomenon. They pop up when we’re sad or hurt, and even when we’re happy. Have you ever seen someone laugh so hard that they cry? How bizarre is it that two opposing emotions can elicit the same physiological reaction?

Well, they actually don’t. The human body produces several different kinds of tears. So when you’re crying about that horrible breakup, the tears you cry are actually not the same as the tears that stream down your face when you stare into a fan for too long.

Basal tears

These are your daily tears. Yes, we all cry every day. If we didn’t, then our eyeballs would shrivel up and fall out. These daily tears are vital to our eye health and comfort. When your eyes get dry, they become irritated, itchy and sometimes painful. Dry eye can frustrate people into rubbing their eyes, thereby increasing their risk of eye infection. While everyone gets dry eye now and then, chronic dry eye is also extremely common. Some five million Americans suffer from chronic dry eye, and that’s just a count of the ones over age 50!

Basal tears are more or less an automatic process, but several things can interrupt your tear production, causing dry eye. Age is a big factor in tear production. As we get older, our body slows down in a lot of ways, and tears are no exception. Blinking is also vital to manufacturing a good number of quality tears. When you don’t blink often enough, your tears aren’t distributed evenly about the lens of your eye, interrupting the overall tear production. This is why prolonged work or driving sessions often result in temporary dry eye: you haven’t been blinking enough.

Some medications and medical conditions can also irritate or damage the tear glands, stalling tear production. Diabetes is one of the better known culprits.

Reflex tears

Both basal tears and reflex tears are physical types of tears, happening without really consulting your emotional state at all. Reflex tears are the “crying” you experience when something has irritated your eye, such as the dreaded onion. To preserve the dignity of many a kitchen chef, these bouts of “crying” are often referred to as “watering eyes,” just so everyone knows that sadness had no influence. Incidentally, the unstable chemical produced by onions that makes you cry is called syn-propanethial-S-oxide.

When some small, irritating bit of dust or grime finds its way into your eye, you’ll produce these kinds of tears, as well. This helps your eye flush out the foreign object and smooth over any damage, helping to keep your eye safe. Wearing proper eye protection like goggles or sunglasses can help protect your eyes from the types of irritants likely to cause this painful crying.

Psychic tears

Now we’ve come to the “real” tears. Psychic tears, also called emotional tears, are shed when your limbic system (the part of your brain that deals with strong emotions) gets an overload of any strong emotion. This can be sadness, stress, or even happiness. This limbic system is hardwired into your automatic nervous system. If the word automatic didn’t tip you off, that’s the part of your brain you have no control over. This is why it is nearly impossible to simply “stop crying” or not cry in the first place.

Acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in this whole process, is what’s responsible for actually prompting tear creation. So the order goes like this: an emotionally powerful event or thought occurs, this thought then strikes a chord with your nervous system which puts out an automatic response to make you cry.

Why cry?

So what’s the point of having this process of tears in the first place? Basal and reflex tears play a vital part in preserving eye health, but what about those pesky emotional tears? Why do we have them?

This is a debated topic. There is evidence to suggest that crying actually heals you up a little bit. Your tears produce something called leucine enkephalin, which has an anaesthetic effect, easing pain. This may be why many people feel somewhat better after a good, long cry.

Crying may also be a mechanism for garnering support from our fellow humans. Crying can be contagious, in a way. We are hardwired to be empathetic towards other people when they present as vulnerable. So a crying proto-human may have been sending a signal to their cohorts that assistance was needed.

Crying is a vital way of stabilizing our emotions. Research suggests that trying to avoid crying when a situation calls for it can actually be more distressing than just letting the tears come. Of course, we’ve all been in social situations where crying is a no-go, but all in all it’s a healthy thing to do. Crying flushes your eyes clean and can help you work through intense emotions. So don’t avoid crying–embrace it!

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