Crying is often seen as a sign of weakness and even something to be ashamed of. But let’s continue to normalize crying, not just because these arguments are bullshit, but because science agrees that crying is important, in fact. It releases toxins like stress hormones from our body, it triggers the production of the right chemicals in the brain, and can ultimately elevate our mood.
If you’ve been trained to hold back tears, it’s hard to understand what a healthy cry really is, and when having one is most beneficial. So I spoke with health experts and psychologists about the ideal ways to use crying to help you maintain sunnier eyesight and a healthier body.
What Happens When We Cry?
We know how to tear feels as an effective way to release our pent up emotions, but what really happens when we cry? Cognitive neuroscientist and mental health researcher Dr. Caroline Leaf notes that prolactin, one of the main chemicals released in our body when we cry, is the same activated in mothers when they are breastfeeding. The body produces prolactin, “in response to negative and positive stress, and can help us manage our stress response,” says Dr. Leaf.
Other chemicals linked to crying are oxytocin, vasopressin, and endogenous opioids, which can all calm us down and have more control when released. Crying also appears to activate the central autonomic network in the brain and the anterior central gyrus (ACC). The former helps restore balance in the brain and body, while ACC is involved in cognitive fluency. This implies that the experience leading to tears – good or bad – disrupted the balance or homeostasis of neural networks and affected the person’s ability to think.
Crying, in fact, relieves pressure. Keeping emotions bottled up can literally create chemical imbalances in our brains and bodies. Dr. Leaf calls the act of crying “letting steam out”, in the same way that opening a valve relieves dangerous pressure in a machine. So it stands to reason that we should cry more often – but how often and when should we cry?
Cry: there is no fixed schedule
Scientifically, there is three types of crying to consider: the production of basal tears, which coat your eyes with an antibacterial liquid when you blink; reflex tears, which protect your eyes from irritants such as smoke, bacteria, or onion fumes; and emotional tears. According to Medical News Today those last tears contain the highest level of stress hormones, so bringing them out does the best job of removing these hormones from your body.
A Tilburg University study found that women cry an average of 3.5 times per month, while men cry at a little over half the rate, about 1.9 times. Whether this is “enough” is difficult to answer, so it may be helpful to keep these averages in mind. Of course crying too much i.e. crying uncontrollably, to the point that it interferes with your daily function, may be a sign of deeper problems. If you are looking for specific numbers, a study of Personality Research Journal shown the average crying session lasts about eight minutes.
Not all crying is created equal. Basal and reflex tears are uncontrollable and result from our environmental environment. They flow from our eyes like emotional tears, but one is more socially acceptable than the other. Knowing when to cry on a straw in your eye isn’t much of a problem, but there’s also no right or wrong time to cry when it comes to your emotional well-being. It would be convenient but counter-intuitive to practice crying on a set schedule; as Dr. Leaf notes, setting aside 30 minutes of your day for shedding emotional tears is probably unrealistic for most people. Instead, just cry when you feel like crying. That is, we need to normalize gently crying in the bathroom at work.
Ways to normalize crying
It’s easier said than done if you’ve been conditioned to hold back. But there are ways to lessen your vulnerabilities and make crying something you feel good about rather than ashamed of. Site inspiring the Aspiring optimist recommends never apologizing when you cry. Amy stanton, the author of The female revolution, wrote a lot about kissing the act of crying, and in a chapter of her book titled “Crying Openly,” she examines the benefits of crying with others: “When we cry to others, we show ourselves and we let ourselves be seen. When we communicate with one another Why we cry, we promote understanding and connection. “
Crying is one of the most human acts, and being human with others only reinforces that crying is natural. Of course, you will only really reap the full benefits when you are around people who you feel comfortable being vulnerable with. The last thing you want is to make emotional progress and be judged in the process.
Having the mental strength to cry when you need it is difficult, as years of training to hide your emotions conflicts with the stress and anxiety that makes you want to cry in the first place. In these situations, Dr. Leaf recommends a “mind management” tool called the neurocycle to anchor you to a place of emotional stability.
This exercise can be done anytime and for any reason, but it’s especially good for building comfort when you cry when you need to, she says. Here is how it works:
First, calm the brain by breathing deeply. I recommend inhaling for 5 counts and exhaling for 11 counts, and repeating this technique 3 times (for about 45 seconds).
Next, gather awareness of the emotional and physical warning signals your body is sending to you, which in this case would be crying. Accept this signal, don’t judge them or try to suppress them (spend about 30-45 seconds doing this).
Now THINK about how you are feeling: ask, respond and discuss the reasons why you are feeling and respond that way. Use specific phrases, such as “I am crying because …”. Do this for about 1 minute.
After thinking about it, WRITE DOWN what you are feeling and why for about 1 minute. This will help organize your thinking and give you insight into what your body and mind are trying to tell you.
Then, RESEARCH what you have written, researching your triggers and thought patterns. For example, you notice that you start to cry when someone brings up a certain topic or you watch something on TV, like it’s the straw breaking the camel’s back and releasing all your pent-up stress.
Finally, take action. I call this step ACTIVE REACH. It can be a positive statement that validates your feelings or a boundary that you put in place to give yourself time and space to process what you are feeling.
Even after learning the benefits, it can still be difficult to come to terms with crying, especially in more formal environments like the workplace. But if you can find a way to fit it into your routine in a healthy way, you’ll be better off. It’s just science.