It’s safe to say that 2020 gave us more than enough to cry about. Yet even prior to last year, it seems that we were crying fairly often. Researchers note that, on average, American women cry 3.5 times each month, while American men cry about 1.9 times each month. These figures may take some of us by surprise, especially as our society has often looked at crying — particularly by men — as a sign of weakness and lack of emotional stamina.
Health benefits of crying
As a phenomenon that is unique to humans, crying is a natural response to a range of emotions, from deep sadness and grief to extreme happiness and joy. But is crying good for your health? The answer appears to be yes. Medical benefits of crying have been known as far back as the Classical era. Thinkers and physicians of ancient Greece and Rome posited that tears work like a purgative, draining off and purifying us. Today’s psychological thought largely concurs, emphasizing the role of crying as a mechanism that allows us to release stress and emotional pain.
Crying is an important safety valve, largely because keeping difficult feelings inside — what psychologists call repressive coping — can be bad for our health. Studies have linked repressive coping with a less resilient immune system, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension, as well as with mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety, and depression. Crying has also been shown to increase attachment behavior, encouraging closeness, empathy, and support from friends and family.
Not all tears are created equal
Scientists divide the liquid product of crying into three distinct categories: reflex tears, continuous tears, and emotional tears. The first two categories perform the important function of removing debris such as smoke and dust from our eyes, and lubricating our eyes to help protect them from infection. Their content is 98% water.
It’s the third category, emotional tears (which flush stress hormones and other toxins out of our system), that potentially offers the most health benefits. Researchers have established that crying releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, also known as endorphins. These feel-good chemicals help ease both physical and emotional pain. Popular culture, for its part, has always known the value of a good cry as a way to feel better — and maybe even to experience physical pleasure. The millions of people who watched classic tearjerker films such as West Side Story or Titanic (among others) will likely attest to that fact.
Rethinking crying in boys and men
“I know a man ain’t supposed to cry,” goes the lyric of a popular song, “but these tears I can’t hold inside.” These words succinctly summarize many a man’s dilemma about emotional expression. From early on, boys are told that real men do not cry. When these boys grow up, they may stuff their feelings deep inside and withdraw emotionally from their loved ones, or self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, or even become suicidal. Many men therefore need to learn the skills of how to reconnect with their emotions. Back in the 1990s, the poet Robert Bly led men’s seminars at which he taught the participants how to get in touch with their long-buried feelings of sadness and loss, and to weep openly if they needed to. Ideally, however, such education should begin early on, at home or at school, with adults making it safe for boys to talk about difficult feelings.
Crying during COVID
As of this writing, the nation has registered over 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. The collective grief over these losses can only be described as staggering. It is no surprise, then, that at times like these our feelings are closer to the surface, and that many people who were not previously prone to crying find themselves tearing up more easily. In fact, as one medical professional put it, showing emotion in public may have become a new normal.
When are tears a problem?
There are times when crying can be a sign of a problem, especially if it happens very frequently and/or for no apparent reason, or when crying starts to affect daily activities or becomes uncontrollable. Conversely, people suffering from certain kinds of clinical depression may actually not be able to cry, even when they feel like it. In any of these situations, it would be best to see a medical professional who can help diagnose the problem and suggest appropriate treatment.
As challenging as it may be, the best way to handle difficult feelings, including sadness and grief, is to embrace them. It is important to allow yourself to cry if you feel like it. Make sure to take the time and find a safe space to cry if you need to. Many people associate crying during grief with depression, when it can actually be a sign of healing. Teaching boys and young men that it’s okay to cry may reduce negative health behaviors and help them have fuller lives.
If crying becomes overwhelming or uncontrollable, see a doctor or mental health professional for evaluation and treatment.
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