What if you turned on the news to the following headline…FREE new technique–with no known side effects–is found to improve the mood of 88.8% of users!!! Would you be curious or do you already know what it is?
Touted throughout history, described by Aristotle, Freud, and modern day psychotherapists of many theoretical backgrounds–the answer is allowing yourself a good cry. Weeping helps almost everyone, young and old, male and female.
Not All Tears Are the Same
Our eyes produce three kinds of tears–each of which serves a different function. Every time we blink, our eyelids produce continuous or basal tears to keep the surface of our eyes protected and moist and also necessary to help protect us from getting infections of the eyes.
Reflex tears, like basal tears, are 98% water. Their production is triggered when a foreign object or something irritating gets into the eye by accident, acting like a natural eye shower to keep our eyes clean.
Emotional tears are composed differently and include an endorphin and natural painkiller called enkephalin. “Emotional tears contain higher concentrations of proteins, manganese, and the hormone prolactin which is produced during stress-induced danger or arousal,” says Dr Carrie Lane of the University of Texas. This difference explains why “crocodile tears” (the type used for manipulation and trickery) are not the same as real ones.
Crying Helps Us Heal
Dr. William Frey from the University of Minnesota is a biochemist who has been studying crying for over thirty years. He found that emotional catharsis helps shed both stress hormones and toxins. Simultaneously, crying stimulates the body to produce endorphins which not only help reduce our experience of pain but also help turn up the volume of our immune system.
Tears can make us feel better and physically stimulate healing at the same time, which is a pretty powerful combination. If you find this subject fascinating, check out Frey’s book, Crying: The Mystery of Tears. Frey is a believer in what is dubbed “the recovery theory” which hypothesizes that we literally cry things out as a way of helping the body recover from physical or psychological stressors.
Other evidence of substances only found in emotional tears helps support this theory as well. Emotional tears have higher levels of certain proteins as well as manganese and potassium. Manganese is an essential nutrient that must be kept in balance for optimum health.
It helps to maintain normal blood sugar levels, to increase the health of nerves, and to keeps bones strong (to name only a few of its many functions). Potassium is necessary for the functioning of all living cells, helping to maintain fluid and electrolyte balance.
Why Women Need to Cry More
Studies have found, that on the average, women cry around 47 times per year while men average 7 crying spells each year. Until puberty, there’s not much difference between boys and girls unless, of course, boys have been shamed or ridiculed for displaying the “weakness” sometimes associated with tears. If the parents and culture allow, both little boys and little girls cry on a regular basis–and should be allowed to–in order to stay healthy and resilient.
After puberty, hormone differences help explain why women cry more often. Women produce more prolactin, the hormone found in emotional tears. In fact, prolactin levels are highest during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They actually increase to ten times their normal level. (I’m glad there is finally something to explain my excessive tears at MacDonald’s commercials, the local news, and a sideways look from my husband during my pregnancies and postpartum).
While some researchers believe that crying is cathartic simply because it releases tension that builds up during stressful events, others believe that crying is the body’s innate mechanism to work through painful events that are still unresolved. Why else would people pay good money to get scared out of their wits by frightening films? Or spend hours watching soup operas or tear-jerkers or films about deeply unsetting subjects? Perhaps we are trying to jump-start the flowing of emotions any which way we can…
I’ve written about the healing effects of laughter in other blogs, and how sometimes we laugh so hard that we cry or we laugh when the more appropriate emotional response would be tears. These examples show how grief and catharsis come in many shapes and sizes, tailored by messages passed down in our family of origin, our ethnic and religious mores and beliefs, our shaping by age and gender.
The other way that crying helps in the resolution of past trauma–especially when done with a safe, loving supportive person–is that we are allowed to express emotions that were often suppressed or forbidden at the time. Often new insights and fresh perspectives come only after the painful feelings have been acknowledged and expressed.
Another function of crying is that it signals the need for help, which is one reason why babies and young children need to cry more often than many adults. Tears sound an alarm that something is wrong that needs attention. Emotional crying–when effective–thus helps to strengthen our attachment to others and to elicit empathy and comforting touch from others.
This explains why crying in the company of another person is associated more often with positive mood change than crying alone or crying in a crowd. If you want to feel better, allow yourself to cry as long as you need to. Don’t stop yourself. When you cry with another person, you are really giving yourself and them a gift.
Since I know that tears are one of the most powerful tools for healing available, I feel happy and relieved when someone allows themselves to cry in front of me or in my arms. Although it is painful to see a loved one suffering from pain or loss, none of us can escape the suffering that comes with being human. What we can do is offer our calm presence, without judgment, and feel grateful for the tears that fall. Tears are precious medicine for body, mind and soul.