Basement Medicine

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Is It OK to Cry?

The CW

For women? Pah. It’s a human thing.

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It’s not just men that get the message that it is weak to cry. Plenty of women are stoics as well. There are plenty of situations when we’d really rather not burst into tears. It seems out of control – and it may be. The self-talk I hear frequently about one’s crying is that you feel: “you’re losing it, losing your mind, falling apart, coming undone, not yourself, going crazy”, etc… This is almost never true.

Clearly, as adults, we’d rather not and really shouldn’t cry at work or in line for the cashier at the grocery store, or while making a presentation in class. Our toddlerhood training gave us pretty strong cues about when it was OK to cry and when it was time to stop crying, or else. Some of us learned it is not ok to cry. Others learned they can get what they want or need if they cry. As in toddlerhood, in adulthood, there is appropriate and inappropriate crying. Crying every time you make a mistake at work, or don’t want your failing grade to stick is inappropriate. Crying as a result of a perfect storm of stressors and disappointments or indeed as in some healing professions, in response to tragedies that occur in the work day – is well within norms. To cry for weeks after a significant loss is very normal. So is not crying for weeks. So who’s to say?

What does crying mean? There are different kinds of crying. You might just well up or cry for a minute and then it passes or have heaving sobs for a half hour or cry off and on for many hours, cry at a sad movie, a happy ending, a birth or a death, a victory or accomplishment. Crying is contextual, situational, related to character traits and mood states. It can be a way to engage others in an intimate and caring way, an expression of sadness or grief, a response to overwhelm, stress or fear, an expression of anger and rage or relief and joy.

Does crying help anything? Yes – for most healthy people, crying relieves stress and induces fatigue and calm, meaning that it helps you transition from a highly aroused sympathetic nervous system state to a restorative parasympathetic state. A nursing blog I visited reported that “The simple act of crying also reduces the body’s manganese level, a mineral which affects mood and is found in up to 30 times greater concentration in tears than in blood serum. They also found that emotional tears contain 24 per cent higher albumin protein concentration than tears caused by eye irritants… (and) that the chemicals built up by the body during stress that were removed by tears, actually lowered stress. These include the endorphin leucine-enkephalin, which helps to control pain, and prolactin, a hormone which regulates milk production in mammals… One of the most important compounds tears removed was adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), one of the best indicators of stress. According to their research suppressing tears increases stress levels, and contributes to diseases aggravated by stress, such as high blood pressure, heart problems and peptic ulcers.”

Tears frequently accompany or precede anxiety and panic attacks. This is the body’s way of metabolizing stress hormones and re-establishing the homeostasis of the over active sympathetic nervous system. Establishing a comfort level with crying in an appropriate context and exercising to exertion and sweat are important tools for managing stress, anxiety and depression.

Crying and depression: crying isn’t always the huge relief it is claimed to be either. Some forms of depression include perpetual tears, frequent welling up whether there are situational triggers or not. The literature notes that this depressive type of crying or crying because of situations that don’t result in a positive change of outcome, won’t bring as much relief as other crying. It still isn’t physiologically bad for you, although it may perpetuate fatigue. On the other hand, sometimes when one is suffering from depression there is an inability to cry – there is numbness and anger and during recovery from this kind of depression crying is what helps normalize frozen or overly defended emotions and is an important part of the healing process. If you are depressed, don’t go it alone. Talk to someone you trust about what’s going on with you or see a Counselor.

Is crying ever bad for you? Physiologically I haven’t seen any research that says so. There may be situations where it would be bad. Some social situations as mentioned above are inappropriate and there will be social consequences for crying. There could also be some dangerous situations in which you need to be silent or to not trigger another person’s negative emotions or risk sparking their dangerousness. Clearly there are situations when we need to hold back tears and remain focused and active. Crying can bring on cognitive flooding and also, impairs vision, so there are times when no – not right now is better because we HAVE to function at that time without those impairments.

What if I do let myself cry and I can’t stop crying? Many folks are too busy for their feelings. They push themselves to “stay strong” for months, years, decades and become afraid that once the flood gates are open it will never stop. It never happens. It’s not physiologically possible. OK? So relax. You may cry a river. You may cry every anniversary. You may cry every time you walk in a room or smell your lost beloved’s clothes but you won’t cry forever. As grief heals, longer periods of time between crying spells occur naturally.

Therapists often find themselves in session with a client who would find significant relief if only they could allow themselves to have that pent up cry, yet instead witness again the many ways humans manage to stop or avoid crying. Some involve automatic (unconscious) physical behaviors like swallowing, jaw tightening, nose blowing, holding tension in the belly, constricting breathing, changing body position, changing eye focus, increasing physical activity, switching to another more acceptable feeling like laughing or anger. We also have cognitive defenses or coping strategies including thought changing, thought stopping, use of distraction, silent self shaming and self-talk to shut it down. While typically these defenses are automatic or unconscious, we can learn to intentionally employ them as coping strategies when needed and appropriate to avoid crying. We can also observe ourselves and consciously allow the reversal – when we need to cry and allow it.

The take away: It is important to give oneself time to feel feelings – later if not now is OK so long as it’s not “forget it” later. Pent up ignored feelings are usually behind those loss of control at the wrong time crying episodes. Avoiding feelings can cause a build-up of stress hormones. It also keeps us from actually paying attention to what the emotion is trying to tell us about what is or has happened and what it means for us. To be self-neglectful of feeling our feelings by being manically busy or whatever other means, is to miss out on the emotional intelligence we are endowed with and the consequences are not always so good when we don’t pay attention to our own wisdom about life. So make some feeling time when you need it. Extroverts do it with friends to talk it out and feel it out together before taking time for themselves and introverts may prefer a more solitary journal time, a walk in the woods, a bath or meditation time for a while before sharing with others. Either way is OK. Just be loving and kind to yourself and know that it’s OK and important to take care of yourself and that doing so regularly will improve your stress tolerance and function.

So if you’re feeling stressed or any of the other feelings that may result in crying – go ahead and make some time to have that cry. Don’t let a good cry freak you out. If your friend needs a good cry, and the time is right, just be there with them and let them have it – don’t try to fix it to make it stop, it probably won’t take long on its own. After the tears and the nap is a renewal of energy and an internal shift that naturally and innately wants to get refocused and get on with life. To feel all feelings is to feel really alive. Feeling is the soul in music, the arts and life. Emotion = e-motion. Let yourself be moved, with care and honor for the self that houses your heart, soul and spirit.

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Is It OK to Cry?