Crying is a normal and valuable part of human communication and emotional expression. No doubt, some use this form of expression more than others and being of Mediterranean descent, my family will tell you not to sit next to me in the movie theater if a “tearjerker” is playing. “The Notebook” really got me! While not comfortable to do in public and may be viewed as a sign of weakness, current research shows that at appropriate times it may be healthy.
We cry for many reasons. Babies cry to communicate, adults cry when they are overwhelmed with positive emotions like a wedding, or negative emotions like a funeral. Crying too easily or too often can be a sign of an underlying emotional or physical problem. However, recent research has suggested that letting out a good cry at times of intense emotional build up, may be healthy.
Crying has intrigued scientists and medical professionals for centuries. Darwin, for example, purported that crying may have a role in evolution and natural selection. If tears can be a sign of emotional vulnerability and bonding, then it may keep communities together for the purpose of procreation.
According to research conducted by Dr. William Frey, humans may be the only species engineered to have such strong emotions that provokes the production of tears. Studies show that the fluid in a tear produced by emotion has a very different chemical makeup than the normal fluid that protects and lubricates the eye or the tears produced when peeling an onion. Recent research has found that a woman’s tears produced in response to sadness may counteract aggressive behavior in men. In the study, men were able to distinguish tears produced from a woman after watching a sad movie compared to saline tears by smell. Simultaneously, scans of the men’s brains while smelling the actual tears found decreased activity in areas of the brain associated with aggression.
Research on the health benefits of crying support the notion that a “good cry” is good for you. Nine out of 10 people report that after a “good cry” they feel better and are less stressful. The best thing about crying for good health is that it is free, almost everyone can do it, and except for a runny nose, red eyes, and runny mascara, it has no side effects. While not a miracle, some of the recent research suggests crying is highly effective at healing, and that it improves the mood of almost 90% of weepers, with less than 10% feeling worse. Some of the researchers go as far as suggesting that there may be a case for inducing crying in those who find it difficult to let go and cry, especially in people with clinical depression or mood disorders.
For some, the emotional build up prior to the cry was so stressful when trying to hold back the tears, crying served as a good emotional release. For others, while the emotional build up was stressful, the embarrassment of crying in public was more stressful. Overall, 60% of those who cried experienced a physiological response. The emotional buildup prior to the cry and the physical act of crying releases adrenaline to create a “flight or fight” response. This is immediately followed by a post-adrenaline period in which the person experiences a physical and emotional release as the heart rate and blood pressure decreases when compared to the suppression of the cry.
Crying is a normal response to stress, emotional or physical trauma in both men and women. Not surprisingly, research has confirmed a long-held belief that those suffering from depression cry more than others. However, more concerning is the fact that those suffering from severe and debilitating depression with mood disorders have lost the ability to cry. Consequently, these individuals have lost the ability to derive the health benefits of crying such as the emotional release and physiological response. While both men and women cry equally when suffering from depressive mood disorders, men who are unable to cry tend to become more aggressive and irritable.
Crying is much more common among those suffering from a feeling of being overworked, overstressed and a loss of control. For these reasons, 71% of 3rd year medical students admitted to crying at least once in the past year. Among this group, most reported that crying was a valuable way of communicating and stress release.
So, the next time someone calls you a “cry baby” when you express your emotions by crying, tell them your “working out” by having a “good cry” to release stress, lower your heart rate and blood pressure and you don’t have time to go to the gym!
Source: Harvard Health Letter
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Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at GCSOM.