Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone, is the famous opening line of the poem Solitude by US author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850 -1919) and I think it epitomises how most of us still feel about anyone else seeing us cry.
We’ve been crying on and off since we drew our first breath at birth and those tears brought nothing but joy as it signified we were alive. When we become adults many people associate crying with a sign of weakness, which carries with it a social stigma.
‘Crying doesn’t mean that the person is weak, it means that person has a heart’ – Anon
I now have a new found respect for crying since discovering that our tears do far more than just keep our eyes clean and moist. It seems there is far more to these humble droplets than meets the eye.
Renowned ‘tear expert’ biochemist Dr William Frey, author of Crying: The Mystery of Tears, (Winston Press, Texas, 1977), spent 15 years as head of a research team studying tears at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and is published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology.
His most famous study conducted in 1981, shows some very attention-grabbing results from tests on tears, revealing they are all different.
Scientists put tears into three categories:
- Basal tears regularly lubricate and clean our eyes and prevent dehydration. On average we blink every two to ten seconds and with every blink, the eyelid carries this miracle fluid over the surface of our eyes. On average we shed around one-fifth of a teaspoon of basal tears a day.
- Reflex tears are generated by aggravations, such as onions or strong fumes, vapours or foreign objects in the eye and these tears can kill bacteria and remove toxins. The tear reflex renders the irritations almost harmless.
- Emotional tears are the most extraordinary and intriguing tears of all. These are triggered by feelings and emotions, including grief, sadness, anger, rage, guilt, joy and happiness.
In an interesting article entitled Miracle of Tears written in 1993, the author Dr Jerry Bergman explains how tears benefit us psychologically, physiologically, and spiritually. The results of many clinical studies conducted since all support his theory.
Emotional tears were found to contain stress hormones and other chemicals that build up in our body while we are under stress and these emotional tears help our body to get rid of them.
Dr Bergman explains that tears produced from emotional crying contain around 24 percent higher levels of a primary protein of blood plasma that moves molecules and has more manganese, potassium, and serotonin in it than tears resulting from anger and irritability.
Crying for joy and crying from pain are also clearly emotionally distinct from crying to release hurtful emotions.
Tears have been shown to have an intense physiological impact. Dr Bergman says that crying can increase our mood, lower our stress, and liberate our feelings from within.
Suppressing tears, according to ‘tear expert’ Dr Frey can increase our stress levels and contribute to diseases aggravated by stress, such as high blood pressure, heart problems, and peptic ulcers.
Dr Jackie Chan, a clinical psychologist at the Hong Kong Psychological Counselling Centre, describes crying as emotionally cathartic.
Dr Chan explains that when we cry, our heart rate and breathing slow down a little and we start to calm down and we might even feel like we’ve had a mood boost after a good cry. He goes on to say that crying is useful for helping people release and express their suppressed or repressed emotions
Studies have also backed up what we already knew that women cry more often than men. Four times more in fact.
Testosterone can prevent crying and is thought to be one reason why men cry less than women. It is also believed to be due to a hormone called prolactin, found in women and stimulates milk production. It can cause us to cry and is mainly present in women’s blood and tears.
Additionally, female tear ducts have a different structure to men, making it easier for us to cry. Women have reported feeling an emotional release after crying and feeling less aggravated and irritated.
Dr Frey also experimented with a large sample of men who cried and discovered that almost three-quarters of the time men were found to become ‘misty-eyed’ instead of actually producing tears that streamed down their faces.
Around 75 percent of men and 85 percent of women surveyed said they felt better after crying and according to Dr Frey, crying is not only a human response to sorrow and frustration, it’s a healthy one. It is a natural way to reduce emotional stress that, left unchecked, has negative physical effects on the body, including increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
In a 2008 study of more than 3,000 crying experiences, shared in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science; researchers at the University of South Florida found that most people feel better after a cry, and suggested that crying be used as therapy for people who have difficulty expressing their emotions.
An even more interesting discovery came from a study led by Dr Dianne Van Hemert, a researcher from the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research. Dr Van Hemert says that individuals in more advanced countries tended to cry more because their culture allows it, while people in poorer countries, who presumably have more to cry about, did not cry as much because of cultural norms that frown on emotional expression and can be seen as being weak.
Animals cry too.
Most animals and other mammals shed tears too but humans are the only living beings, whose tears correspond to different feelings. Dr Chan says it’s impossible for other creatures to shed tears that have a deeper emotional meaning and their tears are only a result of a functional necessity.
Crying Clubs and Crying Rooms.
Some schools, businesses and even government organisations are starting to recognise the benefits of a good cry and some have gone one step further and provide crying rooms for their staff and visitors for them to have good wail.
The University of Utah has received a mixed response from their undergraduates after installing a ‘crying closet’ in their Library, which is designed to help relieve the pressure and high anxiety their students were experiencing especially around exam time.
It was created as an art project by one of the senior students on campus as a favour to his stressed out school mates. It comes equipped with a sign on the door encouraging students to step in and have a good howl and is lined with soft materials and filled with soft stuffed animals.
UK Police in Nottinghamshire recently opened ‘crying rooms’ for their staff and female officers, who are going through menopause and need a release. I remember I did a lot of crying as a result of my mood changes when I was going through menopause.
The Japanese are strong believers in the health benefits of crying and in some cities like Tokyo you can go to ‘crying clubs’ for a communal rui-katsu, which literally means ‘tear-seeking’. When people get together for these sob-fests, they often watch tear-jerking movies to help get the tears to flow.
‘Let your tears come, let them water you soul’ – Eileen Mayhew
Dr Jackie Chan says that if we feel emotional and want to cry then its best to let it all out rather than holding it back. However, he also cautions that crying is only a means to express our feelings and doesn’t get to the root of what we are feeling. We must also learn how to deal with and try and get in touch with the emotions that have triggered the crying in the first place.
Dr Chan suggests if you’re;
- Crying because you feel helpless or overwhelmingly sad.
- Crying without knowing why you’re crying
- Crying continuously for two weeks or longer
- And if these crying episodes are interfering with various aspects of your job, home life or relationships
Then it might indicate a serious underlying problem, such as depression or a mental issue and especially if it’s accompanied by poor sleep, loss of appetite and apathy. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms then please don’t delay in getting medical help and start with your GP.Advertisement
‘It’s OK to cry, the sky does it too’ – Anon
Susie Elelman AM – Author, TV & Radio Broadcaster