Dr. Judith Orloff, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, has done some research on this very subject. She explains that we actually produce three different kinds of tears that are made up of different chemicals and reflect different needs of the body. Reflex tears help us clear out irritating particles in our eyes such as pollens, dust, pieces of sand or dirt, or even smoke or exhaust fumes. Continuous tears are produced on a regular basis to simply keep our eyes lubricated. This is what goes wrong when someone suffers "dry eye syndrome" and has to use rewetting drops on a regular basis. Our eyes need to stay moist even in the absence of irritants and so continuos tears perform this function. They contain a chemical called "lysozyme" which also is an anti-bacterial and helps the eyes avoid infection. Since the eyes and nose are connected through tear ducts these continuous tears also keep the nose moist and reduce bacteria in that area as well.
Emotional tears have unique qualities as well. "Tear expert” Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis investigated the chemical differences in tears and discovered that reflex tears are made up of 98% water, whereas emotional tears actually have stress hormones in them. This is the bodies way of getting rid of these potentially damaging hormones and other toxins after a stressful event. Crying also causes our body to produce endorphins, which are natural pain relievers. Since the brain processes physical and emotional pain in the same areas (see my previous blog) it makes sense that the same chemical that the body produces on the battlefield to help and injured soldier survive is produced in the midst of a painful breakup or other significant stressor. In addition to riding our body of noxious chemicals produced from intense emotional states crying also slows our breathing and heart rate, creating a calmer physiological and emotional state.
Certainly evolution has helped us to develop a mechanism whereby our bodies can help us recover from intense emotional duress. As far as we know right now, humans are the only animals that produce emotional tears. There have been some studies that suggested that gorillas and elephants may, but these have been disputed and the evidence is not clear.
Regardless of the origins of this wonderful mechanism we can all be grateful that we can cry and use that gift to help heal us from deep emotional pain. Far from the ideas that crying belies weakness, a good cry might just be the smartest and most adaptive thing you can do when the emotions get overwhelming.
Wishing you happiness and health,
If in reading this you feel that you would like to consider using psychotherapy to help heal emotional wounds in your past or simply help you live a more fulfilling life in the present please contact my practice for a free initial consultation.