In a nod to the Irish, who have been noted to have "a tear in the eye and a song in the heart", I decided to revive a former blog on crying today. People often remark that they "need a good cry" and feel better afterwards. I've been curious about the underlying mechanisms involved in crying and just why it seems to help us feel better.
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 or dirt. Continuous tears are produced on a regular basis to keep our eyes lubricated. This is what goes wrong when someone suffers "dry eye syndrome". 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.
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 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. 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.
I occasionally meet people who tell me that they cannot cry. Often this pattern has been in existence for a long time, such as a person who says "I haven't cried since my mother's funeral when I was 8". It is often associated with some adult encouraging the poor kid not to cry, such as "she would want you to be strong, son". Other times a person may have been raised in a family where they were warned "I'll give you something to cry about" if they began to tear up. These kinds of experiences when we are young can lead to feeling blocked when it comes to crying as adults. Interestingly I have known clients who suffered from sinus pain or headaches from this difficulty in doing what Mother Nature intended us to do when distressed-- fall apart and have a good cry.
If you are lucky enough to let the water-works flow when watching Terms of Endearment, A.I. or Bambi consider yourself lucky and let the crying begin. If you are feeling stuck and wishing you could get passed feeling blocked you may want to check out some of these movies. Or pick up a copy of Watership Down, Old Yeller or The Fault in Our Stars. Still not sobbing? Consider a consultation with a good therapist to take a look at what might be keeping you from Mother Nature's natural stress-buster.
Wishing you happiness, health and the occasional good cry,
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Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.