03/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Exactly Is Crying Good For?

Now, some researchers say that the common psychological wisdom about crying -- crying as a healthy catharsis -- is incomplete and misleading. Having a "good cry" can and usually does allow people to recover some mental balance after a loss. But not always and not for everyone, argues a review article in the current issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Placing such high expectation on a tearful breakdown most likely sets some people up for emotional confusion afterward.

This call for a more nuanced view of crying stems partly from a critique of previous studies. Over the years, psychologists have confirmed many common observations about crying. It is infectious. Women break down more easily and more often than men, for reasons that are very likely biochemical as well as cultural. And the physical experience mirrors the psychological one: heart rate and breathing peak during the storm and taper off as the sky clears.