Updated: Jan 19, 2021
By Lyana Farooqi
I was searching for my next topic to write about when, in conversation with a friend, I realised that I cry a lot. Crying is, much like my writing, for me at least, cathartic. I cry all the time – at a movie I have seen countless times, when someone says ‘I love you’, at weddings, at concerts, at jokes, in frustration, in anger, in the deepest darkest pits of despair, but also at times of great hope, to celebrate personal endeavour, relief and joy.
I read in an article about crying in ‘Time Magazine’: “There’s a surprising dearth of hard facts about so fundamental a human experience.” Not such a bad thing for me, I think, as I am at liberty to delve into the very reasons why we cry, and emphasise anecdotal wisdom as much as the cold hard science along the way.
Discussing ‘crying’ is inherently philosophical, at least, while the scientific jury is out (more on that later), since it is an experience so personal yet so universal. Having said that, I shall dive in at the deep end and ask: “What makes us human?”. Yes – our genes, our ancestry, our physiology, but beyond that, beyond the dispassion of science, we are all bundles of emotion, we give social meanings, we construct our own reality, and we cry. Crying as an emotional response appears to be a uniquely human experience. Something to be encouraged and celebrated, no? Well – let me convince you.
So, does crying make you feel better? Not necessarily, but you are guaranteed to be wetter. Tears vary depending on the reason for your little overflow. Emotional tears contain stress hormones and mood regulating chemicals in far greater quantity than ‘onion tears’. Perhaps your system is literally overflowing when you cry for real. Anecdotally, crying is considered by many regular criers to be cathartic. It helps us to work through emotions, or to simply lets them happen.
The global experts on crying are yet to give a definitive explanation. However, science does say this about being open with your emotions:
Those who are not open with their emotions (bottlers), risk dying earlier from diseases such as heart disease and cancer. The link? Those who keep their emotions to themselves may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol, smoking or junk food. Equally, dealing with one’s emotions alone is understandably quite stressful. This extra stress may have a hand in weakening the immune system and it is widely known that stress increases the risk of heart disease. (Chapman et al 2013, ‘Emotion Suppression and Mortality Risk’)
Fundamental to a happy life is a range of emotion and emotional experience. No one is saying that crying is the key to happiness, but crying, or at least what it represents, is an important step along the way.
Step back, and think about what crying means to you. You are weak, hysterical. Maybe you are confused? You over-reacted and are very sorry for your little outburst. It’s a stain on your otherwise normal reputation. Maybe there is something wrong with you, you know… mentally? How do you feel when you cry? Is it relief that your emotions are being fully expressed, or anger at yourself for showing too much? Do you think it is just your weakness? Okay, maybe it is an inability to cope, but then surely it is also a way of coping. I would argue further that, rather than just being the last resort when all other coping mechanisms have failed, crying should be one of the primary ways in which we handle our emotions. So – how to describe the job of crying?
Well, speaking of primary coping strategies, talking about whatever you’re facing is probably best. I say ‘probably’, assuming you have no qualms talking it out in a healthy relationship with a trusted individual who will be receptive and non-judgemental, and respond sensitively to your emotional needs when you spill the tea(rs).
Yes, this is where the tears come in. When language fails you, when words become sobs somewhere between your mind and your mouth. Crying also has key interpersonal rewards. Yes, rewards. People who cry have stronger emotional bonds with those around them. Tears help elicit assistance, comfort and support from others. People trust crying as an indicator of someone’s emotions, and crying is part of the myriad of complex social behaviours we have evolved over thousands of years.
Crying alone can also be beneficial – and not just because I wanted an excuse to use intrapersonal, although it is a nice word. It is important to be comfortable with yourself crying and start to unlearn that internalised fear of being ‘weak’. Your body has a built-in stress reliever and even if you are still cynical about whether it lifts your mood, it at least clears out your sinuses and after crying and washing your face, you’ll feel much more energised, and ready to think about how best to solve your problem(s).
So, you may be thinking, that’s all well and good, but I don’t even know if I can cry. A lot of it is practice, telling yourself that it’s okay to feel intense emotions, that it’s okay to be stressed, and, ultimately, losing the fear of crying. Whatever barriers you’ve put up, crying is just being honest and letting your body do what it does best: adapting to cope. It is better to cry alone at first. It’s not easy to lose that social uneasiness that comes from being vulnerable. It’s about being vulnerable to love and support, which can come from yourself, but also emotional closeness. Don’t force it. If your body needs to cry to cope, it will, as long as you allow it. You deserve it!
Still unconvinced? Science may have the answer soon, but in the meantime, here’s more persuasive information. Emotional tears contain many proteins and components not present in other tears. These include leucine enkephalin, a natural pain killer that helps improve mood. Adrenocorticotropic hormones indicate high stress levels and are released in emotional tears. Higher manganese and potassium levels, both essential to body function, are associated with crying and are present in emotional tears. Prolactin levels also increase from emotional crying. Prolactin is a hormone involved in stress and the immune system. It is more prominent during pregnancy when crying behaviour also increases. So, while scientists are cautiously drawing conclusions from these findings, we can assume that these magical mood boosting substances are not present in emotional tears by mere coincidence. You really can ‘cry it out’ and relieve stress through tears.
So, next time you’re dealing with an intense emotion or feel a little pent up, why not take the plunge and give it a cry?
Unless stated otherwise, information comes from the work of Ad Vingerhoets (Tilburg University), Asmir Gracanin (University of Rijeka), and Lauren Bylsma (University of Pittsburgh).