Lacrimation. Weeping, sobbing, crying. Whatever you call it or however intense it is, most of us cry at some point.
If we’re living with emotional pain because of dysfunctional incidents or patterns, many of us have very few options to find reprieve from it. And when the pain and mental burden becomes too heavy, whether we feel so frustrated, alone, desperate, or simply sad… we can find ourselves shedding tears.
Research has shown that tears can be categorized into one of three types: Basal, Reflex and Emotional (aao.org). More of that later. Let’s focus on emotional tears and the triggers behind them for now.
Events, or behavioral patterns, that happen to us –or per Radical Forgiveness teachings, ‘for’ us– can cause emotional and mental injuries that continue to damage our lives from the past, in the present and into our future, unless we find a way to resolve them. And crying can happen without warning because it’s a physical response to the emotional pain. Then the floodgates can open.
Apparently, American women cry 3.5 times each month, while American men cry about 1.9 times each month (health.harvard.edu). Thankfully the old, stereotypical social stigmas attached to men showing their emotions, especially crying, are disappearing.
The good news
Don’t worry. Even if you have found a way to solve your pain, are working through it, or are still wishing you could find a way to eliminate destructive patterns or events from your memories or your everyday life, and yet still find yourself sobbing, there are benefits to be had… Crying can be good for you and your health.
1. It’s Self-Soothing
We often hear the term self-soothing when we talk about babies. Who doesn’t know a mom who swore that it’s best to leave the baby to cry so that it can learn to self-soothe? Babies cry because it’s how they communicate their needs. Adults cry usually because they’re in physical or emotional pain. And yet the point of self-soothing remains the same for both. It’s about learning to:
- regulate our emotions
- calm ourselves and
- minimize our distress
It works because crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), also sometimes referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system, because it aids both functions. It literally helps us to calm down.
Just as we mentioned that crying can be self-soothing for babies, and the fact that this may help them to sleep better once they have overcome their distress, it’s not conclusive whether this is true for adults. It is likely though that the hormones released through emotional tears, coupled with the feeling of exhaustion after intense crying, helps us to fall asleep more easily too.
2. Tears release toxins and hormones
So how does the PNS work to calm us down?
Emotional tears contain more than the salt water and mucus found in other types.
“Just before you begin to cry, your respiration and heartbeat increases,” says Lauren Bylsma, assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Crying releases potentially harmful chemicals and stress hormones through the tears, that can act as a sedative and decrease cortisol levels, “and then your body begins to calm,” Lauren explains.
Whilst there’s been much skepticism around whether tears do in fact contain toxins, research including the 1981 study by “tear expert” Dr William Frey, a biochemist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, American Journal of Ophthalmology has shown that emotional tears) are composed of quite a chemical cocktail that can help put our body back into a state of calm once they have been released. They’re composed of stress hormones (including prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and Leu-enkephalin), potassium, and manganese. (science direct.com/The Ocular Surface / October 2009, Vol. 7, No. 4). Manganese is a mineral which affects mood and is found in significantly greater concentrations in tears than in blood serum. Elevated manganese levels can be associated with anxiety, irritability, and aggression, so the PNS helps to expel excess levels through tears, and thus balance harmful levels to help us regain our calmness.
3. It’s a distress signal
Another research paper published in Frontiers in Psychology examines the idea of intra-individual and inter-individual functions of crying. Put simply, this means the idea of intra-individual crying is the effect that it has on us as the one who is crying; inter-individual crying relates to the effect that the crying has on others –like a plea for help and support to those around us, and with the desire (even though it may be subconscious) for empathy, social bonding, and displacement of aggression. So if you’re in a tight corner, being abused and you cry, your body is actually trying to appeal to the abuser, to repel anger or danger. So it can rally support and could even potentially ‘disarm’ your opposition during conflict.
4. It can relieve pain
Stress tightens muscles and heightens tension, according to Stephen Sideroff, PhD, clinical psychologist at UCLA and director of the Raul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics (web.md). When we cry, we release some of this, because our parasympathetic nervous system restores us to a place of balance and calmness. So, what are our tears made of and how could they possibly relieve pain? The hormone oxytocin – used for the induction of labor and also known as the ‘love hormone’ – can help dispel consciousness of physical pain, plus Leu-enkephalin is a natural painkiller in the form of a hormone, and is present in higher percentages in emotional tears.
5. It can actually cheer you up!
We’ve heard how oxytocin is also known as the ‘cuddle chemical’ or ‘love hormone’ because of the warm, feelings that it can induce, but there’s another secret that’s released in tears that can lift our mood and alleviate physical or mental pain. Endogenous opiods – endorphins- are the feel-good chemicals that are released during exercise, eating, and even crying. The Japanese have been so convinced by these psychological benefits of crying and mutual support, that they have even initiated a trend of ‘crying clubs’ – or rui-katsu (tear-seeking) – as formal gatherings to release stress in groups and benefit from the empathy of others.
6. Tears help fight bacteria
Tears contain lysozyme, a naturally occurring enzyme that’s also found in salvia, mucus, and milk. Lysozyme is more commonly found in reflex tears and acts as a clever anti-bacterial /microbial agent, to attack the protective cell walls of bacteria, leading to the death of bacterial cells themselves. It also has anti-inflammatory and immunostimulatory activities (Ogundele 1998; Lee et al. 2015; Carrillo et al. 2016). So, our reflex tears not only protect us from bacteria, but also from irritants. Next time you chop an onion, or a foreign body like dirt or smoke flies into your eyes, your reflex tears will be shielding them. They can even help reduce risks from bioterrorism agents such as anthrax!
7. Tears are essential for our vision
Basal tears are the type which are released every time we blink. Our tears are composed of three layers – an oil (lipid) layer, a water (aqueous) layer and a mucin layer. They also contain salt, fatty oils, and over 1,500 different proteins or electrolytes, including sodium, which gives tears their characteristic salty taste. These components work together to protect the cornea, and prevent our mucous membranes from drying out to avoid blurred vision, soreness, or infection.
8. It’s good for your heart
Crying can lower both your blood pressure and heart rate, through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Whilst your metaphorical heart may be hurting, crying can actually help heal your heart itself.
So have a good cry, because it not only has the health benefits that we mentioned for alleviating stress, but it’s also another step towards releasing repressed pain and moving forwards on your journey to freedom, peace and happiness.
A word of warning:
Too much crying is not good for you and can be an indication of a more serious underlying factor, such as depression. If crying goes on for two weeks or more, it’s important to contact a health professional.