It’s safe to say that 2020 gave us more than enough to cry about. But even before last year we seemed to have cried quite a lot. Researchers find that American women cry an average of 3.5 times a month, while American men cry about 1.9 times a month. These numbers may surprise some of us, especially since our society has often viewed crying – especially men – as a sign of weakness and a lack of emotional stamina.
Health benefits of crying
As a phenomenon 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 seems to be yes. The medicinal benefits of crying were already known in the classical era. Thinkers and doctors of ancient Greece and Rome noted that tears act like a laxative that drains and cleanses us. Today’s psychological thinking is largely consistent, emphasizing the role of crying as a mechanism that enables us to relieve stress and emotional pain.
Crying is an important safety valve, especially because keeping difficult emotions inside yourself can be harmful – what psychologists call repressive coping. Studies have linked repressive coping with a less resilient immune system, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure, as well as mental illnesses such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Crying has also been shown to increase attachment behavior and promote closeness, empathy, and support from friends and family.
Not all tears are created equal
Scientists divide the liquid product of crying into three different categories: reflex tears, continuous tears, and emotional tears. The first two categories serve the important function of removing dirt such as smoke and dust from our eyes and lubricating our eyes to protect them from infection. Their content is 98% water.
It is the third category, emotional tears (which remove stress hormones and other toxins from our system) that potentially offer the most health benefits. Researchers have found that crying releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, also called endorphins. These feel-good chemicals relieve both physical and emotional pain. For its part, popular culture has always recognized the value of good screaming as a way to feel better – and perhaps even experience physical pleasure. The millions of people who watch classic tear films such as West Side Story or Titanic (among other things) will likely confirm this.
Rethinking crying in boys and men
“I know that a man shouldn’t cry,” reads the lyrics of a popular song, “but I can’t hold these tears in myself.” These words briefly summarize many men’s dilemma over emotional expression. Boys are told early on that real men don’t cry. As these boys grow up, they can stuff their feelings deep inside and withdraw emotionally from loved ones, or treat themselves with alcohol or drugs, or even commit suicide. Many men therefore need to learn how to reconnect with their emotions. In the 1990s, the poet Robert Bly led men’s seminars where he taught attendees how to get in touch with their long-buried feelings of sadness and loss and cry openly when needed. Ideally, however, such training should begin early, at home or at school, with adults making it easier for boys to talk about difficult feelings.
Crying during COVID
As of this writing, the nation has recorded over 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. The collective grief over these losses can only be called fluctuating. It comes as no surprise, then, that at times like these, our feelings are closer to the surface and that many people who previously did not have a tendency to cry are more likely to tear apart. In fact, as one medical professional put it, it may have become a new normal to show emotions in public.
When are tears a problem?
There are times when crying can be a sign of a problem, especially if it occurs very frequently and / or for no apparent reason, or if crying interferes with daily activities or becomes uncontrollable. Conversely, people suffering from certain types of clinical depression actually can Not be able to cry even when they feel like it. In any of these situations, it is best to see a doctor who can help diagnose the problem and suggest appropriate treatment.
As challenging as it may be, the best way to deal with difficult emotions, including sadness and grief, is to hug them. It is important that you allow yourself to cry when you feel like it. Take your time and find a safe place to cry when you have to. Many people associate crying during grief with depression when it may actually be a sign of healing. Teaching boys and young men that it is okay to cry can reduce negative health behaviors and help them live full lives.
If the crying becomes overwhelming or uncontrollable, see a doctor or mental health professional for evaluation and treatment.