I want to give you a top line explanation of the role of crying. Understanding why we are designed to cry is important if we want to be psychologically the healthiest parents, spouses, friends, children and adults that we can be. Being comfortable with tears, our own and other people’s can be hugely helpful in the various roles we play and challenges we face in our lives.
The first thing to understand is that ‘emotional tears’ are different in their formation from ‘reflex tears’ (the ones we produce to protect us from the elements) or ‘basal tears’ (the ones always present that prevent our eyes from drying out). Reflex or basal tears are about 98% water, but ‘emotional tears’ contain hormones that will have built up during either a brief or more elongated period of stress or emotional anxiety and ‘need’ to be released.
The body is a clever little system if allowed to function as it was designed. When we are stressed or unhappy we produce particular hormones which, if allowed to remain in our system in larger than ideal quantities can start to adversely affect our physical and emotional health. The reason we generally feel much better after a damn good cry is that we have allowed our body to excrete, and I use the word excrete deliberately! stress related (toxic) hormones. In fact, some of the hormones excreted in tears are even thought to be associated with the experience of physical pain, which is why crying in such circumstances can even be physiologically pain reducing. It’s also why holding on to our tears is thought to be associated with the manifestation of physical pain somewhere else in our bodies.
Can you imagine the damage we could cause by holding on to other waste products we need to excrete?!!!
Crying is also part of the important process of how we adapt to what we can’t change. Have you ever noticed how differently you can start to see a situation after a good cry about it? If you are a parent you will have noticed how crying can often wash away the pent up frustration that kids can experience when they face a situation they are powerless to change?
As human beings we are designed to try to change what isn’t working for us. We have creative brains which are brilliantly designed to come up with alternatives for what isn’t going our way. But! Sometimes, try as we might, we simply can not change some situations. Death, losing a job, not winning at sports, failing an exam, not being invited to a party, not getting our own way. Once we have explored and closed down all potential avenues and we are left facing a futile situation, there is simply nothing to do but feel pain and sadness and allow ourselves to release it through our tears. For both adults and children the tears are the door to the ‘other side’ where we can turn the corner, see alternatives we couldn’t see before, and start to feel better again.
As a parent it’s natural to want to protect our children from the sadness we fear is associated with their tears, but the more I understand about the psychological process of adapting to what we can not change, and the role sadness and crying plays in this, the more I understand that in protecting them from their sadness and tears, I am preventing them from developing emotional resilience, something that is crucial to the happiness and well being of all mature adults. Resilience is not about being tough and defended against that which can hurt you, it is about being able to fast track through the process and come out the other side.
So next time you feel yourself chocking back the tears, or you notice someone else fighting the urge to allow their emotional tap to open, don’t run in the other direction! Grab a tissue and let it happen, it’s natures way of keeping you emotionally healthy in the most natural way possible.