Working on wellness: Let the tears flow

Drawing of a person crying.
(Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

I find crying in public embarrassing because of the ensuing runny noses, red and puffy eyes, ragged breathing and hiccuping, so I often try to hide my distress. Growing up, a lot of us were told that crying is a sign of weakness, and this was likely accompanied by sexist associations with being a “sissy” or a girl — associations that not only degrade women but also harm men.

Toxic masculinity (stereotypical behaviors and attitudes associated with masculinity) discourages men from expressing emotions, especially in the form of crying. Most men are expected to suppress or ignore their feelings, but emotional crying can help their mental health. 

Even amidst changing gender and mental health norms, crying continues to be stigmatized, especially among men. However, crying is linked to numerous health and relationship benefits. Understanding the health benefits of crying will help destigmatize crying, improve mental health and encourage people to embrace it instead of avoiding it.

Relieves pain and boosts mood

There are three types of tears: Reflex, continuous and emotional, with the latter responsible for self-soothing and detoxing the body of stress hormones. Research suggests that crying emotional tears triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation and digestion, and releases oxytocin and endorphins, which relieve physical and emotional pain. Oxytocin promotes calmness and decreases anxiety and cortisol (the “stress” hormone) levels while endorphins relieve physical pain.

According to the vascular theory of emotional efference, certain emotional face movements regulate the changes in the brain’s blood supply that occur in negative emotional states. Sobbing, which researchers define as the convulsive inhaling and exhaling of air with spasms of the respiratory and truncal muscle groups,” has the potential to boost mood by cooling brain temperature.

Encourages interpersonal bonding

Even though crying in front of others may be embarrassing, research indicates that it actually strengthens relationships. Crying is an attachment behavior that everyone uses as a baby, serving as a signal for support. When individuals offer comfort, it further strengthens the bonds between them.

Process grief

Releasing emotional tears is cathartic and a healthy coping mechanism especially beneficial for people experiencing grief. People who are grieving may feel guilty, numb, sad and angry, and crying can help them process and accept their loss

Balance intense emotional states

Even though crying is usually associated with sadness, people often cry when they are angry, frustrated, happy or anxious. If people meet a certain emotional threshold, they may cry as a way to lower their emotional state to a neutral one. 

Some people struggle to help those who are crying because they feel uncomfortable, but it is crucial to validate your peers’ feelings, eliminate negative gendered associations and reinforce the idea that crying does not make them weak. People often feel vulnerable when crying in front of others, and they may find comfort in a hug, verbal reassurance or considerate silence to process their emotions. Some people prefer a stern approach, but it is still important to create a supportive environment for them.

Everyone has different methods for coping with emotional distress, but crying is simple and effective. Failing to cope with negative emotions in a healthy manner can lead to a weakened immune system, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, anxiety, depression and stress.

According to Gail Saltz, M.D., crying is only harmful when it prevents someone from conducting daily tasks. This is usually a signal that there are underlying psychological issues, such as depression or anxiety. In general, crying does more good than harm, so it is crucial to normalize and engage with it more often. 

Sydney Lee CM ’22 is TSL’s health and wellness columnist. She’s a psychology and media studies dual major and likes hiking, coffee, and the Oxford comma.

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