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Crying is a natural response to grief and loss. I don't think anyone would deny that. Whether it is an important part of the grieving process is debatable according to some circles, though. Should you allow yourself to cry, or should you suck it up and move on?

Looking at the psychological and physiological effects of grief and loss, according to Worden (2008),

Stress causes chemical imbalances in the body, and some researchers believe that tears remove toxic substances and help re-establish homeostasis. They hypothesize that the chemical content of tears caused by emotional stress is different from that of tears as a function of eye irritation. Tests are being done to see what types of catecholamine (mood-altering chemicals produced by the brain) is present in tears of emotion (Frey, 1980).

This kind of research could have benefits within many areas of psychology, but annoyingly,

  1. the citation references an article that predates the book by 28 years, and this part of this edition of the book has not been updated to reflect on the findings of this research; and,
  2. the article cited is not available that I can find, although it is cited in 23 articles.

Searching for catecholamine in tears in Google Scholar doesn't seem to produce any relevant results from what I've seen. Many are about catecholamines related to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinsons and Alzheimers.

I came across one article which researched dopamine levels in tears (Martin & Brennan, 1993). Certainly not the chemical I would think you would want to be looking for in grief related stress research and homeostasis. Although, plasma levels of dopamine were researched by O'Connor, et al. (2013) who found that norepinephrine and dopamine did not predict complicated grief.

What is known from this research? Has anything been found to support the hypothesis?

References

Frey, W. H. (1980). Not-so-idle-tears. Psychology Today, 13, 91-92

Martin, X. D., & Brennan, M. C. (1993). Dopamine and its metabolites in human tears. European journal of ophthalmology, 3(2), 83-88. https://doi.org/10.1177/112067219300300206

O'Connor, M. F., Shear, M. K., Fox, R., Skritskaya, N., Campbell, B., Ghesquiere, A., & Glickman, K. (2013). Catecholamine predictors of complicated grief treatment outcomes. International journal of psychophysiology, 88(3), 349-352. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2012.09.014

Worden, J. W. (2008). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (Fourth Edition). Springer Publishing Company.

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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't really pass the smell test to me (though, to be fair, biology can be surprising), which might explain a lack of work in the area to disprove. It's not like catecholamines are a difficult thing for biology to handle, there are many metabolic pathways available to modify and degrade them without needing to argue that tears are necessary to clear them. Further, the volume of tears are tiny compared to serum, so to have an appreciable effect the concentration would have to be very high, and creating very high concentration gradients is expensive. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 21, 2023 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Why do humans cry? $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Apr 21, 2023 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ If the hypothesis holds true, bearing in mind what you have pointed to, @BryanKrause maybe the emotional crying serves the purpose due to the fact that the catecholamine levels have reached a tipping point. Maybe the flood is too much for the usual metabolic pathways to handle? Just a thought. It would be interesting to read any study results supporting or refuting the idea. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2023 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers That just doesn't make sense, though, from neurobiology. It would make sense that you might find catecholamines in tears in concentrations that vary with their release elsewhere, it just wouldn't make any sense to consider that excretion to be the purpose of the tears. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 21, 2023 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ It was interesting to find mrt mentioned the Frey study in the comments in the question you linked, but 5 years later than indicated in the book I'm reading @ArnonWeinberg I will have to try and dig around 1985 to see if I can find it. Of course, it could be an error. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2023 at 22:04

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