Why We Cry (and why we think we shouldn't)
Why do we cry, or more importantly, why do we feel we shouldn't?
There is some science behind crying. We are the only animals it seems that cry emotionally. Babies need to cry to let you know they are in discomfort, hungry, tired, wet or just need a cuddle ("acoustic indicator of parental need" seems an apt term). But why do we cry when we are sad?
There seems to be a 'two-stage' biological basis to crying. When our body goes into a stress state (fight, flight or freeze), stage one, part of our nervous system is stimulated leading to an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, sweating etc. Once that tension drops, the second stage is restorative, involving the 'opposite' part of our nervous system, and tears are a by-product of this. Crying relieves the tension that has built up and as a result makes us feel calmer and better able to make rational decisions. The term 'crying with relief' supports this idea.
Another line of research has identified chemicals in tears that signal to our partners that we need to be comforted and cared for. Tears are a clear sign that we are in distress, a signal which would be beneficial in evolutionary terms. In fact tears are so powerful that even seeing someone else cry can be enough to cause our own tears (every time I watch Terms of Endearment I prove that theory to be true).
As well as evoking empathy in those close to us, our tears can make others feel guilty or ashamed. It seems crying could be a superbly manipulative behaviour which has given our ancestors the evolutionary edge. Without words we can make others feel the need protect us or make amends for their own bad behaviour.
Crying also carries cultural values. Whereas maintaining a 'stiff upper lip' may be seen as a virtue here in the UK, in countries such as India and Taiwan, professional mourners 'perform' at funerals. Crying seems to be more acceptable in wealthy countries - does worrying less about basic survival needs liberate us emotionally? In all countries it seems women cry more than men. Does this have a biological basis? Perhaps. It seems women's tears reduce testosterone levels in men, the hormone linked to sexual arousal and aggression. Again this may serve to bring about a caring response.
I often work with clients who fight back tears or 'try not to cry'. They apologise repeatedly for crying and try to fan away the tears. They make fun of themselves and try to laugh through the tears. Some pride themselves on having not let themselves cry. My response is always to question this. My client has just been sharing with me their deepest, darkest thoughts, their most shameful, their saddest, their most angry emotions. I have the privilege of hearing their brutal honesty about themselves but then a tear pops out and somehow that is not acceptable. What is that all about??
For many, they see crying as a weakness. As children grow, we tell them not to cry, that it's not worth crying about; there's no point in crying over spilled milk, stop being a cry-baby, big boys don't cry. Of course there may be situations where crying may not be the most appropriate response but as a response to emotional distress, how can it be a bad thing? We laugh when something is funny (within reason) and we are happy and that is acceptable. I would never judge someone as 'weak' because they laughed uncontrollably at a funny film. Never have I thought "crikey, what a laugh-baby".
Some fear that if they start crying they will never stop - it's as if once the valve is opened, it will permanently leak. But it is healthy to cry to relieve emotional stress, to work with your experience of grief or loss. Tears can let you express your unhappiness and allow you to start the healing process. Crying can be a sign of depression so if you cry for no apparent reason or very frequently and you have other symptoms of depression, seek help from your doctor. Otherwise, you will find you do stop crying and it may well make you feel better. It will also tell those around you that you need extra support. So, go on, have a good cry. It really is ok.
If you would like to the opportunity to talk about how you are feeling, get in touch.