University of South Florida psychologists Jonathan Rottenberg and Lauren M. Bylsma, along with their colleague Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets of Tilburg University describe some of their recent findings about the psychology of crying in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The psychologists analyzed the detailed accounts of more than 3000 recent crying experiences (which occurred outside of the laboratory) and found that the benefits of crying depend entirely on the what, where and when of a particular crying episode. The researchers found that the majority of respondents reported improvements in their mood following a bout of crying. However, one third of the survey participants reported no improvement in mood and a tenth felt worse after crying. The survey also revealed that criers who received social support during their crying episode were the most likely to report improvements in mood.
Research to date has not always produced a clear picture of the benefits of crying , in part because the results often seem to depend on how crying is studied. The authors note several challenges in accurately studying crying behavior in a laboratory setting. Volunteers who cry in a laboratory setting often do not describe their experiences as being cathartic or making them feel better. Rather, crying in a laboratory setting often results in the study participants feeling worse; this may be due to the stressful conditions of the study itself, such as being videotaped or watched by research assistants. This may produce negative emotions (such as embarrassment), which neutralize the positive benefits usually associated with crying.
However, these laboratory studies have provided interesting findings about the physical effects of crying. Criers do show calming effects such as slower breathing, but they also experience a lot of unpleasant stress and arousal, including increased heart rate and sweating. What is interesting is that bodily calming usually lasts longer than the unpleasant arousal. The calming effects may occur later and overcome the stress reaction, which would account for why people tend to remember mostly the pleasant side of crying.
Research has shown that the effects of crying also depend on who is shedding the tears. For example, individuals with anxiety or mood disorders are least likely to experience the positive effects of crying. In addition, the researchers report that people who lack insight into their emotional lives (a condition known as alexithymia) actually feel worse after crying. The authors suggest that for these individuals, their lack of emotional insight may prevent the kind of cognitive change required for a sad experience to be transformed into something positive.
Crying has come naturally to us since the day we were born. When we were infants, we bawled when we were hungry, sleepy, tired, frustrated, dirty, you name it. As we grew a little older, our tears rolled when we felt ignored, scared, reprimanded by adults, or we fell down. The tears didn’t last for too long, and within a few minutes we were back to our normal active, curious, childlike selves.
But what happened as we grew older? We learned to repress our emotions. Not show our disappointment or pain so easily. We became big boys and big girls, and our parents and teachers reminded us again and again to stop crying over this or that and to be brave.
But fact of the matter is we all have to cry even as adults at some point or the other in our lives. And scientists have discovered that those who have a good cry periodically actually lead healthier lives.
Here’s how crying can heal you:
1. Release tension and the toxins of emotional stresses from the body. After a good bawl, don’t we all feel a little lighter?
2. Tears which flow with emotion actually contain higher amounts of protein and beta endorphin – natural pain relievers. Tears also kill bacteria, lubricate our eyes and help us see better.
3. Those who cry more often than others report less physical illnesses than those who keep it inside.
4. Crying aids inner calm and peace. We can view the situation more clearly and calmly after a good session.
Tears are your body’s release valve for stress, sadness, grief, anxiety, and frustration. Also, you can have tears of joy, say when a child is born or tears of relief when a difficulty has passed. In my own life, I am grateful when I can cry. It feels cleansing, a way to purge pent up emotions so they don’t lodge in my body as stress symptoms such as fatigue or pain. To stay healthy and release stress, I encourage my patients to cry. For both men and women, tears are a sign of courage, strength, and authenticity.
Like the ocean, tears are salt water. Protectively they lubricate your eyes, remove irritants, reduce stress hormones, and they contain antibodies that fight pathogenic microbes. Our bodies produce three kinds of tears: reflex, continuous, and emotional. Each kind has different healing roles. For instance, reflex tears allow your eyes to clear out noxious particles when they’re irritated by smoke or exhaust. The second kind, continuous tears, are produced regularly to keep our eyes lubricated--these contain a chemical called “lysozyme” which functions as an anti-bacterial and protects our eyes from infection. Tears also travel to the nose through the tear duct to keep the nose moist and bacteria free. Typically, after crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter into a calmer biological and emotional state.
Emotional tears have special health benefits. Biochemist and “tear expert” Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis discovered that reflex tears are 98% water, whereas emotional tears also contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying. After studying the composition of tears, Dr. Frey found that emotional tears shed these hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress. Additional studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and “feel-good” hormones.” Interestingly, humans are the only creatures known to shed emotional tears, though it’s possible that that elephants and gorillas do too. Other mammals and also salt-water crocodiles produce reflex tears which are protective and lubricating.
Crying makes us feel better, even when a problem persists. In addition to physical detoxification, emotional tears heal the heart. You don’t want to hold tears back. Patients sometimes say, “Please excuse me for crying. I was trying hard not to. It makes me feel weak.” My heart goes out to them when I hear this. I know where that sentiment comes from: parents who were uncomfortable around tears, a society that tells us we’re weak for crying--in particular that “powerful men don’t cry.” I reject these notions. The new enlightened paradigm of what constitutes a powerful man and woman is someone who has the strength and self- awareness to cry.
Try to let go of outmoded, untrue, conceptions about crying. It is good to cry. It is healthy to cry. This helps to emotionally clear sadness and stress. Crying is also essential to resolve grief, when waves of tears periodically come over us after we experience a loss. Tears help us process the loss so we can keep living with open hearts. Otherwise, we are a set up for depression, if we suppress these potent feelings. While everyone has to reach that grief and process that grief in their own way and in their own time, life is filled with loss and grief in varying degrees. Without the tears, we get stuck in that natural process. In my life, too, I consider it a good thing when I cry. I cry whenever I can. Wish I could more. Thank God our bodies have this capacity. I hope you, too, can appreciate the experience. Let your tears flow to purify stress and negativity.
Being strong and brave is not about suppression of emotions. It’s about clarity, willingness to face whatever life offers our way. And knowing the power of release. So the next time you feel the tears well up, go get the box of tissues and cry your heart out. You’ll feel better in more ways than one.
Resource: sciencedaily.com ; Psychology Today