Crying as Medicine

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At one time or another, nearly all of us have felt better after a good cry. But does crying help our physical and mental health as well? Research says that tears and sobs can be beneficial, even healing.

Because of my multiple sclerosis (MS,) I cry very easily. So it’s good for me to know that this symptom has positive side effects. What are some of these benefits?

First of all, tears are necessary for vision. They keep our corneas clean and healthy. Tears also contain lysozyme, a fluid that kills bacteria and viruses. All tears have those effects, not just the emotional tears of crying. But emotional tears are different.

According to Roger Dobson in the The Independent UK, emotional tears “have higher levels of some proteins, and of manganese and potassium, and hormones, including prolactin.” Prolactin is a stress-related hormone. Women have more than men, which may account for women’s greater tendency to cry.

Professor William Frey, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, author of Crying: The Mystery of Tears, says, “I have suggested that we may feel better after crying because we are literally crying it out. Chemicals that build up during emotional stress may be removed in our tears when we cry.”

The biggest benefits may be emotional. Nearly 89% of people say they feel better after crying. Researchers at the University of South Florida suggest that crying is so beneficial that “weeping therapy” might be “suitable for people who have difficulty expressing their emotions.”

It may not be all about the tears. Like exercise, sobbing and weeping involve deep breathing that may clear out some tension and open some air sacs in the lungs that normally don’t get used. Crying has been found to lower blood pressure and pulse rate. So right there’s a nondrug, measurable, physical benefit.

Other benefits are probably social. Health columnist Jane Brody says, that, “while all mammals have tears to protect their eyes, only human beings shed tears in response to emotional stress.” Crying may help people find support. Studies in the Netherlands show that people are more likely to help others who are crying. Tears appear to inhibit aggression by others. (“Who wants to beat up that crybaby?”)

Should You Cry for Health?
The average woman cries from emotion 47 times a year; the average man seven times. Still, crying has a bad rap. Writing in Psychology Today, psychoanalyst Jane Bolton PsyD, MFT, CC, said that some common beliefs are that “It is ‘weak’ to cry. It means the person is not in a ‘powerful’ state or feeling. ‘Vulnerability’ is bad.” And if we don’t stop these vulnerable feelings, we fear that they will grow, and we might not be able to come out of them.

We are raised and trained not to cry. You don’t hear “Boys don’t cry” as much as you used to, but the belief is still out there, and it applies to women, too. Still, research shows that most people look favorably on people who cry, whether male or female. The biggest barriers to tears might be internal; we just don’t want to face painful feelings, so we suppress them.

But suppressing emotion is almost always worse than expressing it. Over time, the sadness and negative feelings will build up. When I wrote about emotions in 2009, Beth commented, I

have found that for me, it’s quite damaging to ignore the emotions… If I ignore them, they cry loudly for attention, and if I keep ignoring them, they hit or even bite me. But if I recognize them, say their names, and meet their basic needs, they quiet down.

And the German writer Goethe said, “It’s not the tears we cry that hurt us, but the ones we struggle not to cry, for they drip within our sad and weary hearts.”

Dr. Bolton gives this advice on crying:

• Cry alone when you are not worried about how you look with runny eyes or swollen lips.
• Choose a time when you will not be interrupted.
• Do not attempt to hold back the tears or hold in what the natural grieving process tries to expel.
• Acknowledge the hurt that causes the tears; cry fully, broadly and deeply.

Sometimes we need help to cry. I know some movies, some songs, and even some memories that will likely trigger tears if I feel I need them. You might have some tear-jerkers, too. Consider using them.

Not all crying comes from sadness. Some people cry from happiness, from anger, or from a variety of other emotions. I would guess those tears may have similar benefits to crying from sadness, but I couldn’t find any research on them.

And don’t forget that laughter may be just as healthy, or healthier than crying. In fact, the benefits might be similar. Psychologist and laughter expert Paul McGhee, PhD, says, “Your sense of humor is one of the most powerful tools you have to make certain that your daily mood and emotional state support good health.”

But that’s another article (maybe next week.) The point is perhaps that all emotions are good for us, in moderation. We know they improve quality of life, and research shows that they’re good for our health. Which makes sense, if you believe in evolution — if they didn’t help us survive, we wouldn’t have them. So feel free to have a good cry, or a good laugh.

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