All Cried Out: Major depression puts lid on tears

People diagnosed with major depression seem destined for frequent, intense crying jags. After all, their condition revolves around feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and sadness.

That common intuition may be wrong. Depressed individuals cry no more often in response to a sad situation than nondepressed people do, according to a new study. What’s more, if an episode of depression lasts at least 6 months, the likelihood of crying substantially declines, psychologist Ian H. Gotlib of Stanford University and his colleagues report in the May Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

The researchers also found that in major depression, crying becomes disconnected from other typical responses to unhappy events. Unlike their nondepressed counterparts in the study, depressed volunteers who cried while watching an upsetting film often didn’t report accompanying spikes in sad feelings. They also exhibited few of the physical responses that usually accompany crying.

“Being depressed may blunt the crying response over time and disrupt the [coordination of] sad feelings,” says study coauthor Jonathan Rottenberg, a Stanford graduate student.

The researchers studied 48 women and 23 men with major depression and 24 women and 9 men with no psychiatric ailment. Each participant viewed two brief films. One featured nature scenes; the other showed people grieving over a man’s death, focusing on a boy who becomes increasingly upset upon learning that his father has died.

About one-fifth of the volunteers cried during the sad film, whether or not they were depressed. Crying bouts did not begin sooner or last longer in the depressed group.

Both depressed and nondepressed women cried far more often than their male counterparts did. The sad film drew tears from only one man, who had no mental disorders. A larger sample is needed to explore this sex difference in relation to depression, Rottenberg says.

Crying was part of a coordinated emotional response in nondepressed volunteers. In this group, criers rated themselves as having been sadder during the upsetting film than the dry-eyed did. Criers also displayed sadder facial expressions during the film and exhibited larger increases in physical responses to stress, such as heart rate and the skin’s electrical conductance.

Among depressed individuals, the presence or absence of crying bore little relationship to self-reports of sadness, facial displays of the feeling, or stress responses.

Finally, crying bouts markedly declined among women who had been depressed for 6 months or more. Only 7 of 28 cried, compared with 10 of 19 women who had been depressed for less than 6 months.

“Clinical lore suggests that depressed people cry frequently and intensely,” remarks psychologist Thomas E. Joiner Jr. of Florida State University in Tallahassee. “This new evidence demonstrates that clinical lore can be wrong.”

It’s unclear why crying diminishes as depression continues, Joiner adds. He suspects that extended episodes of depression lead to social withdrawal and a general shutdown of emotions, thus quelling tearful reactions.

Depressed individuals may cry more often in certain situations, such as in a physician’s office, Rottenberg theorizes.

An investigation of emotional reactions in the daily lives of depressed men and women is now needed, says psychologist Ann M. Kring of the University of California, Berkeley. Surprisingly, she says, few studies have probed the various components of emotion that are altered in depression.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.