Many of us have suffered over the past year, both big and small. We are more isolated than ever, while taking on new responsibilities, such as distance schooling or working from home without childcare. We can mourn a death or mourn the postponement of a marriage. During these extraordinary times, stress and sadness can build up in us, especially if we suppress our negative feelings.
After my sobbing session I asked myself: could crying be a way to help us cope and release some of this stress? And if so, is it a good idea to make yourself cry?
The truth about emotional crying
There are three types of tears: basal tears, reflective tears, and psychic tears. Basal tears and reflective tears keep your eyes healthy by lubricating them and ridding them of harmful irritants, respectively. The tears of crying are psychic tears, which Gauri Khurana, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist in New York City, defines as “tears that are expelled during an emotional state.”
Some theories about emotional tears have been around for centuries, such as the popular belief that crying removes toxins from the body and always leads to a feeling of catharsis, or emotional release, says Lauren Bylsma, assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the ‘University of Pittsburgh whose research focuses on crying and emotional functioning. But research on crying is limited, she says, in part because of the difficulty of mimicking emotional situations in a lab and ethical concerns in studying crying in more natural situations.
So far, the idea that crying provides physical detox or flushes toxins out of the body is not supported by strong evidence, Bylsma says. And while catharsis can sometimes happen with crying, it doesn’t necessarily happen all of the time.
“It seems like crying is just happening. . . after the peak of the emotional experience, crying is associated with this return to homeostasis, ”she says. “Crying can help this process of recovering from stress, but it may only be in certain circumstances, depending on the context in which the person is crying.” There are other, more important factors that play a role in how a person feels after crying, she adds, such as the social support they receive.
Another popular theory about emotional crying that hasn’t been proven by research is that holding back tears, or not crying despite grief, is unhealthy.
There is preliminary evidence suggesting that when people “purposely suppress their tears and hold them back, there can be negative effects of it, both psychologically and potentially physically,” Bylsma says. You might get a headache from staying stressed, or you might feel less connected with others if you don’t share your needs.
In addition, “the emotional restraint associated with suffering can also translate into emotional restraint accompanied by joy and happiness,” says Jennifer Henry, director of the University of Maryville Counseling Center, because being able to cry is a big thing. way to recognize his feelings.
But Bylsma adds that it’s important to understand that there are significant differences in people’s tendency to cry. You “might not want to cry, and that isn’t necessarily unhealthy,” she says. It is also not necessarily dangerous to suppress crying when it could have undesirable consequences, such as “if you cry at work and it affects your performance at work or if it is an inappropriate situation”.
How and when to cry is most beneficial
There’s a lot of variability in how you might experience the benefits of crying, Bylsma says, but a key factor is the social context: you’re more likely to feel the benefits if you cry around people who support you.
“Crying and opening up is really a social signal to show vulnerability and to show that something is wrong in a way that cannot be expressed in words,” says Khurana. Crying is telling ourselves and others that we may need help or may be overwhelmed – feelings that are all too common during this pandemic.
The amount of social connection and support that crying creates varies depending on the culture and people around whom you cry, says Henry. For example, crying in front of your best friend may evoke more comfort than crying around a coworker. But the “social bond, support and connection” of crying is powerful, Henry says.
Whether you are crying with someone else or alone, shedding tears can also help you “face the things that bother you and deal with them and process them emotionally,” says Bylsma. “You could achieve a new cognitive understanding. . . spending that time focusing on it, because crying is something that gets a lot of attention from the individual and others around you.
In this way, crying can act as a signal “to stop and take care of yourself and to deal with this emotion” by dealing with underlying issues or stressors, says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, psychologist based at Connecticut and integrative mental health expert.
Beyond receiving support from others and gaining a deeper understanding of what may be bothering you, crying is also a form of expression. “Emotional expression is healthy in general and it’s something we want to encourage to help people cope with the feelings they are facing,” Bylsma says.
Should you make yourself cry?
Because crying can have social and emotional benefits, is it healthy to be made to cry? It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, says Bylsma.
“It depends on how you make yourself cry and your purpose in doing it,” Henry adds. “If you feel there’s an unresolved sadness or something that you really, really need to get out of,” she says, there might be some value in “trying to tap into the emotion that might create. the cries”.
But Bylsma says you shouldn’t worry if you can’t cry, especially during the pandemic. Some people may experience a “chronic traumatic stress reaction where they might experience numbness” and have a hard time being in touch with their emotions because of whatever is going on, she says.
Rather than forcing yourself to cry out of the blue, each expert recommends allowing yourself to cry – and even induce a session of crying – if you feel stress or emotions building up. “If a person feels the need to cry and feels the need to express their emotions, they should do so in the context that will be most useful to them, whether alone or with someone else or during a Zoom call, ”Bylsma says.
“The first reaction people have most of the time when we feel the tears start to flow is to try to stop it,” Capanna-Hodge says. “Stop trying to brake. Let it happen and give it the time it needs. “
Allow a good cry
To prepare for a healthy cry, find a safe and comfortable place for yourself or with someone you trust; Bylsma recommends finding people you generally feel close to and sharing other types of emotional reactions.
You can make you cry by listening to a song that triggers emotions, watching a sad movie, chatting with your therapist, or just telling a friend that you need to cry. Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. When you incite a good cry, “your subconscious allows you to release things that may have held you back,” says Capanna-Hodge.
Crying can be different for everyone. Your cry may consist of a few tears or half an hour of sobs. Your crying will also depend on what you’re going through, whether it’s a job loss or a stressful week on the front line. But if you cry constantly for a few weeks or if you don’t know why you are crying, it may be a sign that you should find a therapist to help you figure out what is going on and provide support, Henry says.
You can also provide a comfortable and supportive space for your family and friends to cry. You don’t need a solution; it’s just important to be there with them. Doing so, says Khurana, often allows “the blossoming of love and just caring in a way that was not there before.”