When is crying cathartic?

The idea that crying is a cathartic experience, leading to relief from distress, has deep roots. However, empirical evidence for catharsis after crying is mixed. One explanation for the inconsistent results is that variations in the social context of the crying situation determine whether or not crying-related catharsis occurs. To evaluate the role of social context and other contextual features in crying-related catharsis, self-report data were collected on characteristics of the most recent crying episode and its effects on mood in 2,181 male and 2,915 female students in 35 countries. It was hypothesized that the experience of catharsis after crying would be associated with social support during crying, reasons for crying, and characteristics of the situation where the crying occurred. Several contextual features of crying episodes were indeed predictive of crying-related catharsis. Specifically, the receipt of social support, experiencing a resolution to the event that caused the crying episode, and achieving a new understanding of the event were positively related to catharsis. Crying episodes that featured the suppression of crying or the experiencing of shame from crying were less likely to be cathartic. The data suggest that contextual factors may play an important role in shaping crying-related catharsis.

Source: “When is Crying Cathartic? An International Study“, from Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology

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