More than tears - why it's good for us to cry

I remember a conversation with someone a couple of years ago in which she told me she hadn’t cried for over 10 years. I was shocked at this disclosure and wondered how she had managed to hold in tears for such a long time! It is highly likely that, in that time, a person would have an experience that would cause a strong emotional response that would typically lead to a good sob.

Since this person, I have met many others who tell me a similar thing, and I have started to pay more attention to how people react if they cry in front of me, and how people respond to others crying.

Often, a natural response to someone crying is to comfort them and encourage them to stop, either by helping them to see that things aren’t that bad or by offering positive words. The intention is good, but the subconscious message is 'it’s not OK to cry', that crying is something we shouldn’t do. Imagine if we just sat with them while they cried, letting them know that their tears are OK and not something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of.

I believe the British stiff upper lip persona has a lot to answer for! With this comes the belief that crying is a sign of weakness and that we shouldn’t show our emotions. As such, I’ve come to notice that a common response when someone cries in front of me is that they apologise, and often try to quickly wipe the tears away as though they never happened. I am always curious about the perceived need to apologise, and try to reassure them that it is OK to cry with me.

I have met people who have been punished for crying, and as such have come to associate it with shame and fear. This is a learned response based on experience, and as such can be unlearned by receiving a healthy and supportive response to their tears. I’d encourage everyone to be that supportive response.

Can you think of a time where you felt a need to cry but you stifled it? How did that feel? Unnatural, difficult, even impossible, perhaps? The emotion is often still there, waiting to be felt and released. It can feel like you are carrying a really heavy weight around that you just need to offload. You can only carry that load for so long though, and it often comes out in other ways such as aggression, irritability, self-harm, and substance use, for example.

In contrast, have you ever let yourself have a good cry and noticed that you feel better afterwards? It may not have solved your problems, but that load feels a little lighter. Well, there is a science behind that lightening of the load...

How crying helps

  • Crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which releases hormones that have a calming effect on the body and reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
  • It helps you to communicate pain and distress - consider the example of a baby crying. No one views this as a sign of weakness or an inability to cope. It is the baby’s way of saying I need something or I feel upset, in pain, or uncomfortable. An adult crying is doing much the same; sometimes words aren’t enough, or we can’t find the right ones.
  • Crying releases hormones that help us to feel good (endorphins), relieve pain (oxytocin) and reduce stress (cortisol). When the body feels stress cortisol is produced and can be found in tears – this is the body’s way of expelling this hormone.
  • Crying is a natural expression of emotion as opposed to a more damaging or dysfunctional expression such as anger, aggression, or self-harm.

It is my mission to normalise crying and encourage people to see it for what it is - a release of emotions and not something to be fearful or ashamed of. So, the next time you feel the need to cry, don’t fight that need - allow yourself the right to feel and express your emotions. It’s healthy, it’s natural, and it’s an effective coping strategy when life just gets too much.

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Written by Roberta King MBACP

I am a qualified Person-Centred counsellor and a registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).

I work from two different locations in York and have several years of experience supporting people to make positive changes in their lives with a specialist knowledge of helping those struggling with addiction.… Read more

Written by Roberta King MBACP

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