October 19, 2000, Category: Guest Authors

Steffanie: A Good Cry

Steffanie Thornock wrote the following article on the benefits of a good cry. Crying is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years and she does a great job of exploring some of the core elements involved in shedding tears. Now I need to convince her to write a follow article to help those of us who are “tear-duct challenged” learn how to release the rusty valves keeping us locked up. 😉

Steffanie Thornock
Aug. 1, 2009

Crying is good for physical and psychological health

lob2009 (Small)Like many ten year old boys, when my son turned that age, he wanted a BB gun.  The blessed day arrived, it was a rite of passage of sorts, out came that polished black barrel with the shiny plastic wood looking handle from the oversized box.  His dad gave him the classic “don’t shoot your eye out” lecture and he was off.  One spring morning, after a few months of target practice, he, along with my other boys, was out back and I was watching them through the window.  I see a rabbit go running across the yard and stop under our trampoline.  My little hunter-gatherer also spotted the potential target.  I see him take aim.  Thinking to myself, “it’s no big deal, he won’t hit it”.  I hear the sound of the BB and instantly, I see the rabbit flipping and flopping around.  At times, it tries to run with its front leg but the back legs aren’t moving at all.  There is a sort of high pitched squeal that the injured rabbit is making.  It is obviously in pain.  I instantly go to my feet and cover my mouth with my hand.  Tears are suddenly burning my eyes.  I am overwhelmed with anger, sadness and empathy at the plight of this damaged creature.  My emotions came on so quickly, it was a physically painful experience.  After I had a good cry for that darling fuzzy animal, I found that I actually felt better.  I still felt bad for the rabbit but physiologically, something changed inside me.  I felt differently.  As I look back on this experience, I remember being extremely upset.  What was it that made those tears emerge? What had changed in my brain and/or physically, both before the traumatic event and after? Why did I feel better after weeping?  I have often thought about this particular episode and wanted answers to my burning questions.

There are several reasons for the small phenomenon called tears. The most obvious reason for tears, is the fact that our eyes need constant lubrication.  Tears are made of a salty, protein-rich fluid which originates from the lachrymal gland apparatus.  Most people blink quite often–every two to ten seconds.  Another important function for tears is that they wash the eyes in lysozyme.  According to Jerry Bergman in “The Miracle of Tears”, lysozyme is one of the most effective antibacterial and antiviral agents known.  Within as little as ten minutes, lysozyme inactivates 90 to 95 percent of all bacteria in the eyes.  He also states that without lysozyme, most people would go blind from eye infections within a relatively short time.  The other reason for tears is the main point which I want to explore–emotional tears.  Simply put, tear production (crying) may actually be a way for humans to deal with emotional problems . 

There are both physiological and psychological reasons to cry although there needs to be a balance between crying and crying to excess. 

There is compelling evidence from research in biochemistry, neurology, and  ophthalmology, as well as the social sciences, that crying, within limits, is an     important human function.  Crying not only serves a number of crucial physiological purposes like lubricating the eye and excreting toxic chemicals, but   it also is important for bonding and interpersonal relationships.  However, just as    stifling all urges toward tearful expression can be destructive to your peace of   mind and intimate relationships, so too can crying in excess be unhealthy    (Kottler 10).

Kottler further says, “Tears are a silent conversation taking place between two people.”  I find this rather poetic reference to personal bonding resulting by the sharing of tears an extremely powerful event.  Human beings need this connection to be productive in society.

So what is it that people tend to cry most about? As I look back over my 35 years of life, death tops off most peoples list.  Next might be the birth and illness of children, followed by relationships with parents and other relationship-induced stress husband, family, inlaws and so forth.  Other reasons could be: cheating spouses and violent ones, absent fathers, rape, adoption, school exams and remembering lost loves.  “The most common reason for crying is low-level frustration or sad moments on TV” (Why We Cry”).

As a chaplain, counselor, minister and teacher, Daniel Bagby, author of Seeing Through Our Tears says:

Tears are never meaningless.  Acquainted with our deepest longing and highest aspirations, tears have conveyed anger, ecstasy, fatigue, fear, loneliness, pain, relief, and joy.  Tears clothe our hearts and souls with words; they share the language of our inner selves. (7)

I am often sad to hear people apologize for their heartfelt tears.  It is a beautiful emotional experience to be present during and share such an intimate event. . Often times I feel tears say something compelling that words cannot express.

 Sometimes as we express our innermost feeling of gratitude or faith or love, tears seem to spring unbidden from our eyes and we surprise even ourselves with the depth of the feelings which we unknowingly carry deep within us.  A young Air Force officer friend of mine told of an experience he had in conjunction with training during his first year at the Air Force Academy.  At the end of a week-long exercise involving survival, evasion of capture “behind enemy lines”, resistance to questioning and simulated torture, the simulated prison camp was “liberated” by an invading rescue force involving explosions, complete with gunfire and smoke.  Even though he knew that most of the events had been staged to simulate battlefield conditions, and that his group had never been in actual danger of bodily harm, he reported that he, with his entire group unabashedly stood and openly wept at the sight of the American flag being raised over the simulated prison camp as they were “liberated.”  He reported that it was one of the most emotional experiences of his whole four years at the Academy!

            From his book, The Language of Tears, Jeffery Kottler says,

The storage capacity for each individual varies tremendously.  Some people cry quite easily in response to the most mild surprises: others have an internal reservoir so cavernous that in their lifetime they can’t recall a single instance when it came close to the point of spilling over.  These wide individual differences in the propensity to cry are part of what make this subject so fascinating (8).

The young men on the story of the liberated prison camp in the preceding paragraph were tough, well-balanced Air Force officer trainees—yet in the “hardening” process in order to help them resist and anticipate interrogation and torture techniques, it was necessary to expose them to their own hidden emotions.

            The need to cry, in some individuals, gradually builds up until they feel an urge for release. At that point, almost anything will trigger the tears. Because of this, there are times when the reason for crying is not immediately evident, and the outburst appears to be unjustified by the current situation. I like to call this the “Broken Cookie” phenomenon.  When an individual has accumulated enough stress to cry at any time, even dropping a cookie creates enough disappointment to trigger the release of tears.  Other factors may have additive effects, like the prodromal feelings of the onset of menses—even occurring before the unsuspecting women (and her equally unsuspecting partner…) is aware of the impending menstrual cycle change.  The poor partner says something completely innocuous and the woman bursts into tears with no real understanding of what has actually triggered the waterworks!  The partner hurries to console weeping woman, all the while wondering why something he has said or done many times before has, this time, triggered a waterfall of tsunamis proportions.

I remember as a very small child, some nights, right about dinner time, my mother would pull out the dreaded cutting board.  The next red flag would be that strange white sort of apple-looking ball with the fascinating layers.  I thought that whenever she was sad, she would get that white ball out of the fridge and chop and dice away. I never saw her throw it into the dinner she was making because I would always run outside so that she could cry in peace. Only later did I find out that that white ball was called an onion and it was the fumes that actually irritated her eyes and she wasn’t really sad at all!  At the St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center in Minnesota, researcher William Frey wanted to see if there was a difference between emotional tears and tears from simple irritants.  Volunteers were asked to watch a sad movie and then were exposed to freshly cut onions.  Researchers found that the emotional tears produced by the movie contained far more toxic biological byproducts (“The Miracle of Tears”).  This tells us then that emotional tears and tears generated by irritants have a different chemical make-up.  The chemical composition of tears may well have a role in our own personal responses to our own tears.  Perhaps the irritant-induced tears are ineffective in relieving the emotional stress that emotional tears seem capable of doing.

As we all have experienced, stress builds up in our bodies.  I have found for me that playing racquetball is a way to “blow off steam,” or reduce stress.  Also, going into a batting cage and beating the heck out a leather-covered sphere, where I can pound out my frustrations, leads to the same result.  Crying is another option that produces a physical change in the human body.  I remember in my early days of therapy, I had told my therapist, Steve, that I didn’t cry much because I didn’t like the way it felt.  He asked me what it felt like for me.  I told him that my throat got tight and hurt, my breathing was erratic, my eyes felt as if they would pop from their sockets, my head would pound with a soon-to-be-felt headache, and my nose would run and then get stuffy.  And those were only a few of my symptoms!  No wonder I didn’t want to cry!  It was physically painful.  I would much rather play racquetball! 

The beauty of crying, though, as opposed to racquetball, is that the release of tears actually reduces the body’s manganese level, which can cause a poisoning syndrome in mammals.  Research has shown that the adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) which is associated with high blood pressure, heart problems and peptic ulcers, is one of the best indicators of stress. Other chemicals that are produced in our bodies when we are under stress are prolactin and leucine enkephalin. Researchers have found that when tears are released, these compounds are released.  They conclude that chemicals that build up in the body due to stress were removed by tears which then lowered stress levels (“The Miracle of Tears”). We have often heard the sayings, “To cry helps a person feel better” or, “You’ll feel better after a good cry”. In contradistinction, Charles Darwin, considered emotions to be little different from reflexes, occurring without prior rational thought.  As I have looked at the relationship between crying and physical health, it appears that that healthy people cry more and have more positive attitudes in general. 

Dr. William Frey, a biochemist in Minnesota, states that “we may increase our susceptibility to a variety of physical and psychological problems when we suppress our tears” (Frey 63).   Physically suppressing tears, in addition to making your throat hurt and your lungs ache, may contribute to stomachache, ulcers, constipation, high blood pressure, and heart disease.  Simply holding back the tears which would otherwise make us feel better and more relaxed and stress-free actually make us feel worse and less relaxed and more stressed.  The psychological aspects of suppressing tears have even more far-reaching effects on us.  The cathartic and stress-relieving effects of tears not only does not occur, but the psychological negatives are multiplied.  The mechanism for stress relief is circumvented, resulting in a compounding of the original stress beyond the original problem simply by suppressing it’s intended release!

All mammals that live in the air produce tears to lubricate their eyes but only humans have the ability to produce emotional tears. Mojo is our family dog. He is part Chihuahua and part miniature pincher. He is generally a happy dog and we love him a lot.  Last year he got sick and almost died.  Upon looking back at that, I wondered why he didn’t cry.  Certainly, when I am very sick and hurting, I cry.  Obviously, he was hurting but I never saw any tears.  Charles Darwin in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals says that crying is “a special expression of man”. 

I come from a reasonably dysfunctional home–single parent and moderately impoverished and abusive.  Consequently, I cried a lot as a child and as an adolescent.  I was really good at crying, and as a result, spent a fair amount of time in therapy, working through the emotional scarring which had taken place over the years of abuse.  I am completely aware of how healing a “good cry” can be.  Not only is the ACTH hormone  released, but also leucine enkephalin which is a natural painkiller. Crying after a stressful event can be comparable to sweating during physical activity.  Our body is trying to get rid of the excess chemicals that are produced in times of stress and exertion.   

Often, after a grueling and heart-wrenching psycho-therapy session, my therapist would ask me, “How do you feel now?” and I would respond after I’d have cried my guts out, “Better!”   First, I had purged myself of the feelings that were being held hostage in my heart and second, I was getting rid of toxic chemicals and also getting a hit of pain killer.  So it is no wonder that I felt better after crying!

The author of “Why We Cry” John Paul Flintoff tells of a time when he was a child and he turned on the water works when he was about to get into trouble with his father.  He tells how his dad turned a little softer when his crying started. It had always worked before this point in his life and he had expected it to work again this time, but something had changed.  John Paul’s father told him that he was “too old to cry”. What had changed? Exactly how old is “too old” to cry? And was this gender specific or was this also for the girls in this specific family?[1]

All research indicates that crying is a healing mechanism that allows people to cope with stress and trauma. Crying can be considered a natural repair kit with which every person is born. People of all ages cry because they need to, not because they are “spoiled” or immature.  Yet our society discourages tears.  When asked what the most common misconception about crying is, Marriage and Family Therapist, Steve Allred answered, “that it’s a sign of weakness. . . because males, especially have been socialized to “man up” and not be vulnerable or show tears.  We are taught to protect women by denying our vulnerability”. According to one study, women cry 64 times per year and men cry 17. And adults cry most frequently when they are alone, at home, between 7pm and 10 pm (Why We Cry”). Another question put to Allred, “Is crying by ones self productive or effective?” He answered, “not near as effective as having someone present, it usually enhances a sense of aloneness when you cry alone.”

 I recall one poignant moment that I felt as if I needed to keep myself together emotionally.  I had pulled into the driveway of my home after the birth and unfortunately, the death of my number two child.  I had already spent the last 24 hours weeping and was doing better and was desperately looking forward to getting home.  But as my husband and I pulled into the driveway, I was overcome by the reality of my situation.  As I stepped out of the car, I had an incredible desire to fall to my knees and sob on my lawn.  I would have given a lot at that moment to have had some privacy.  It wasn’t that my husband and son were there, the problem was that a neighbor was at our home and had just dropped off some dinner for us.  There were several reasons for my restraint.  First, I felt as if I was showing weakness if I gave into my incredible grief.  Second, I knew I would feel vulnerable.  And third, I felt it was too intimate a moment for the level of intimacy that I was comfortable with.

Judith Kay Nelson has somewhat of a twist on crying in her book entitled, Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment.  In it she says:

Crying is above all a relationship behavior, a way to help us get close and not simply a vehicle for emotional expression or release.  We do not cry because we need to get rid of pain, but because we need connection with our caregivers-literal, internal, fantasized, or symbolic—in order to accept and heal from our pain and grief.  Crying is not about what we let out but about whom we let in (6).

Husband to wife or wife to husband, sister to sister, brother to brother, and occasionally best friend to best friend develop the emotional closeness that can only be cemented and made permanent by the sharing of deeply moving experiences, including tears.  Without this bond of tears, these types of relationships are transitory at best and do not last.  With this type of emotional aqueous cement, such relationships span lifetimes and even generations.  These are similar to the blood and tears bonding and cementing the loyalty of our soldiers to our country, eliciting from them commitments to defend our liberties even to their own deaths when necessary.

            Allred, says “weeping is the core of moving forward”. In Clinical literature, crying is generally treated as necessary and important component of a successful therapy process and also shows that therapy involving high levels of crying leads to significant psychological improvement. Those patients who did not express their feelings in this manner during therapy tended not to improve, while those patients who did frequently cry in therapy experienced changes for the better (Nelson 5).

            I cannot imagine not being able to weep. Many husbands might find this a blessing to mankind but strangely enough, there are some who suffer from an inherited disease called familial dysautonomia.  People whom are affected with this rare disease cannot cry tears and possibly as a result, also have a very low ability to deal with stressful events.

In Conclusion, it seems apparent that emotional tears are a reaction to the body needing to clear itself of physical and emotional toxins  I believe it is safe to say that research shows that crying is actually healthy for our bodies as well as for our mental well-being. Crying releases chemicals that reduce stress, lowers blood pressure, and reduces tension. Crying releases natural painkillers and increases the body’s ability to heal itself.  Psychologically, crying can act as a catharsis, which then turns to emotional healing.  On the contrary, suppressing tears can add to stress levels which can cause more difficulties both mentally and physically.  Generally, in our society, crying is seen as a sign of weakness. However, people who freely cry, enjoy better health both physically and emotionally.


Works cited

Allred, Steve.  Personal Interview. 22 July 2009.

Bagby, Daniel. Seeing Through Our Tears. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers. 9          September 2000

Bergman, Jerry.  “The Miracle of Tears”. Answers in Genesis. Sept 1993.             http://www.answersingenesis.org/creation/v15/i4/tears.asp.

Flintoff, John-Paul. “Why We Cry”.  The Age Co. Ltd.  30 Aug. 2003.             http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/08/27/1061663846142.html.

Kottler, Jeffery.  The Language of Tears. St. Lewis, NJ. Jossey-Bass: August 1996

Nelson, Judith Kay. Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment. New York: Routledge.   Illustrated edition 2 March 2005.

William Frey, Crying: The Mystery of Tears, Winston Press, Texas, 1977.

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