Everybody cries. Crying is a natural, deeply engrained biological function, a reflexive response to strong emotional experiences. Usually sadness, but it can happen when you’re extremely happy, or angry, too. Crying has a lot of range.

And crying is important. Many point to its function as a potent mechanism for releasing stress and emotional pain, which is a key aspect of good wellbeing and mental health.

As a neuroscientist, I’d long been well aware of this. As a result, I’d scoffed at the notion that 'men don’t cry', dismissing it outright as unhealthy macho posturing, an unhelpful holdover from the past, and something we should ignore in these more mentally enlightened times.

But then, in 2020, I went to my father’s funeral. The highly restricted, socially distanced one, necessary because he’d died from COVID-19, at the age of 58.

I never got to see him, I never got to say goodbye, and I had to give a eulogy. It was, by some margin, the saddest day of my life.

But I didn’t cry.

It’s not that I didn’t want to cry. I did. I knew it was right and necessary. But I just couldn’t.

You know when you get that tingling build-up in your sinuses that means you need to sneeze, but the sneeze never comes? It was like that, only much sadder.

I did eventually cry that night, just before bed, when everyone else in my house was asleep. But still, I’d clearly internalised way more of the 'men don’t cry' perspective than I’d realised.

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Why do we cry?

Despite how common it is, the actual reason for us crying is still unclear.

We know it’s a deeply fundamental process; the tears we cry due to strong emotions, known as psycho-emotional tears, are actually chemically different from those we produce when we’ve dust in our eye, or cutting onions.

But why did this process evolve in the first place? Sure, the whole 'releasing stress and powerful emotions' aspect is very useful, but why did evolution decide that this process would benefit from being loud, noisy, and involve leakage from the eyes?

It’s telling that crying from emotions is a trait that’s unique to humans (as far as we know). Much of the things that make humans unique stem from how intensely social we are, compared to our fellow species. In fact, a surprising amount of our brain function is dedicated to forming, and maintaining, emotional bonds with others.

One theory is that crying is a way of signalling, to those close to us (emotionally or geographically), that we are experiencing powerful emotions, and need help, support, empathy, or just a general connection.

This is emphasised by the fact that our emotional tears contain chemicals like oxytocin, which enhance emotional bonds.

It’s grimly ironic, in a sense, that we’ve learned to be embarrassed to be seen crying, when that’s pretty much the whole point of it.

Therapist consoling mature patient during therapy session
© Getty

Why don’t men cry, and why is that bad?

Men can cry. Men should cry. They have all the same plumbing and neurological wiring that women do, in this regard. But we live in a world where men's expression of emotion is regularly regarded as a sign of weakness, of vulnerability.

However, as I learned at my father’s funeral, it’s one thing to know intellectually that men can and should cry, but in practice, it’s more complex than that.

We are all, whether we like it or not, shaped by our environments, in innumerable ways, both overt and subtle. Our brains learn by doing, and by observing. And in particular, the people around us, and our interactions with them, shape our very thinking.

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So, if we live in a world where the message 'women cry, men don’t' is constantly reinforced, our brains will readily internalise this, and, if you’re a man, it’ll work to prevent crying, even in the most emotional circumstances.

This is dangerous. The parts of our brains that process powerful emotions, allowing us to deal with them, are the same parts that create them. So, if we don’t allow ourselves to feel our emotions, we cannot work through them, and our mental health declines as a result, to a potentially fatal extent.

Essentially, such unthinking masculinity, which prevents men from crying, can be literally toxic.

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Four simple ways to get better at crying

So, if you’re a man who wants to cry more, but is struggling to overcome decades of social programming telling you you shouldn’t, what can be done?

It’s a difficult process, but here are some helpful options:

Embrace your emotions in a safe or private way

Crying in front of people may be a scary prospect, but you need not start there. If you can make yourself cry while alone, that’s an important step.

Indeed, watching sad films, or listening to sad music, while alone, is a very common pastime, because it allows the brain to acknowledge and process negative emotions, but in a safe, risk-free context.

It’s a bit like an emotional workout; it’s not nice to lift heavy weights repeatedly, but it is good for you.

Personally, while trying to work through my crying issues, I kept revisiting the most heart-breaking scenes from Pixar films. It was sort of like using an emotional nicotine patch.

Talk it out

It may sound trite, but if you have someone who you can open up to emotionally, take advantage and do so.

A good friend, a romantic partner, a close family member, anyone. Those we’re close to are actually an important aspect of the human brain’s emotional processing; sharing emotions is often as important as experiencing them. It’s much easier to cry when you have someone who is there to help you do it.

Break the cycle

Following on from the previous advice, it’s also important to avoid reinforcing the message that men don’t cry.

If you have friends or colleagues who are the sort to laugh and ridicule any emotional expression in other men, it may be necessary to distance yourself from such negative feedback.

Test your own boundaries as and when you feel able to, but when you’re trying to unlearn a bad lesson, ideally you’d avoid having it taught to you again.

Appreciate 'manly' crying

There are many examples out there of healthy masculinity, that involve men openly crying in positive ways – just look at Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds crying when their team Wrexham achieved promotion.

Seek them out. Embrace them. We’re always being told about the darker examples of male communities, but they’re not the only ways to be a man in our modern world.

Dean Burnett goes into more depth about the actual workings of our brain in his latest book, Emotional Ignorance.

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Dean is a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’. He is the author of the the popular Guardian Science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ (now ‘Brain Yapping’ on the Cosmic Shambles Network with accompanying podcast), the bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, and his first book aimed at teens, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It.