While crying is often a symptom of depression, it can also be the way out of your hardest times. Crying helps us reset our mood and our health, so we suggest embracing it as part of the healing process.
Who hasn’t been told to stop being a baby or to ‘man up’ for letting out their emotions?
Parents often tell kids not to cry – a stiff upper lip is a sign of growing up. As adults, we either try not to cry, or wonder: “Why do I keep crying all the time?” As if crying is a bad thing.
These societal norms have consequences that rob us of our built-in tool against depression.
When we bottle up our emotions, we miss the benefits of crying. It’s not always convenient, and sometimes it makes us too vulnerable for the current situation. But it should be ok to keep crying.
While the time and place matter, there are reasons to let the waterworks flow. The health and happiness benefits might convince you to welcome some weeping.
Emotional tears have special properties that reset our stress hormones, kill bacteria, boost feel-good neurotransmitters, and literally open our eyes in a new perspective.
Some have called tears “raindrops from your eyes, washing all the mad out of you.” It turns out, that might get it right!
Our bodies produces all kinds of tears, but the ones that come from true stress or emotion are chemically unique.
They create a natural exit path for stress hormones like cortisol – rebalancing blood levels of stress hormones helps your body calm down and stay out of fight or flight mode.
They even have antibacterial properties, with a chemical component dedicated to dissolving bacteria and other unwanted debris in the eye.
When you cry, your tears can kill bacteria lingering in your tear ducts or on your face. Our bodies think we’re in danger of infection when we’re upset enough to cry.
So similarly to the immune system encouraging depression, being sad or angry triggers tears that can help keep the immune system safe.
Crying also triggers your body to release oxytocin, which can help with physical pain relief and make you feel safe.
When you’re alone or with a comforting friend, oxytocin may “counter cortisol” to help you feel more relaxed, and it can also help increase bonding.
Just be careful not to cry too hard in the presence of someone you’re upset with – oxytocin doesn’t just increase bonding. It also increases the ‘emotional salience’ or importance of any social event, to the brain; this means an oxytocin boost when fighting with your partner, for instance, could make you associate fighting more strongly with your partner.
Moral of the story: oxytocin is great when you’re alone or have comfort during a cry. But if you’re angry crying, you might want to step away from the ‘offending’ loved one for a moment.
Emotional crying can be louder, wetter, and longer than the crying that comes from a speck in the eye or chopping onions.
But it creates a healing river, washing away stress hormones and creating feel-good chemicals, to help you feel more balanced. More crying means more emotional cleaning and more calming for your spirit.
Crying also helps the physical effects of stress. When you’re stressed, you can’t help but clench your muscles and tighten your jaw.
Because crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system, it helps release that tension without you even thinking about it. This helps you to feel more relaxed by sending a bottom-up message to the emotional part of your brain: hey, my body is relaxed again, the threat has passed!
Quiet time after an intense emotional release helps your body re-adjust to a calm state and integrate all that just happened.
In Japan, men and women recognize the health and welfare benefits of crying — so they hold “community cries,” called rui-katsu.
These get-togethers use sad movies and emotional songs to encourage “communal bawling” in a society generally conditioned not to cry. Fortunately, there’s no need to travel when you have a place to cry it out anytime, anywhere while chatting with people who get it.
If you’re crying in the wrong place, or can’t process all your emotions at this moment, try quick fixes like squeezing the skin between your thumb and forefinger or blinking quickly.
A quick breathing exercise or grounding technique can also distract you, and tide you over until you are in a safer place to let it out. And if you still struggle to control your tears, dig deeper to find out what’s going on.
Is your crying expressing your feelings, or is it in protest of a situation you’re in? In her book, Seeing Through Tears, Dr. Judith Kay Nelson suggests that ‘protest crying’ mostly just wears you out.
Crying actually helps when you’re in touch with your feelings or soliciting emotional support from a friend.
If you feel stuck in a protest cry, talk to local friends or your online community at Supportiv, to figure out what practical steps will make you feel better.
Of course everything has its time and place, but crying deserves a space in your life.
Think about a private spot at home or at work, or how you can make a safe crying space, on the go.
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.” –Washington Irving