A thirty-something multi-tasking mom and career woman arrived in my office for her first appointment this week. She was stylish and pretty, tapping out a message on her iPhone when I came out to greet her in the waiting room. She came prepared with a list of goals and items she wanted to discuss, but not long after we started, tears began to roll down her cheeks.
In my office, it isn’t unusual for patients to cry – it could be that they experienced a loss, stumbled over a thought they did not realize was so painful, or even cried for joy. In most cases, patients don’t come in planning to cry – lots of people are ambushed by their tears, reminding me of how I sometimes found myself unexpectedly bawling when I called my mom. It was as though I didn’t feel the sadness or hurt until I heard her voice.
Often, people apologize, and feel embarrassed. Lots of us have dabbed at our eyes and tried to straighten up after a sad movie, hoping to dry the tears before the house lights come up, so no one notices. There is something about shedding tears, the giving up of control in front of other people, which makes us feel uneasy.
For years in our society, crying suggested weakness, and was to be avoided. That taboo was especially strict against men, who were supposed to suck it up. Big boys don’t cry was a phrase thrown at kids, even though they were not yet big boys. Fortunately, that old thinking mostly went out of style with canned vegetables. Several studies now suggest that men who cry are more attractive to women – there just seems to be something about a man who shows his feelings.
Almost all of us cry – on average 47 times a year for women and 7 for men – and the majority of us feel better afterward. This isn’t true for crying that comes from slicing onions or from having a foreign body invade our eye. Those tears are chemically different from the kind produced by emotions.
Emotional tears that are the result of a stressful events, such as a boss letting loose a torrent of criticism, or being jilted by a lover, contain stress hormones – which suggests that the phrase “cry it out” may contain a deeper layer of truth than we thought. When scientists measure the contents of emotional tears, they find high amounts of cortisol and prolactin (a hormone that plays a role in the immune system). This has made some researchers wonder whether the urge to hold back our tears could actually reduce immunity to disease.
I’m an easy crier, so I was glad to read that recent research at the University of South Florida showed that an overwhelming majority of the study participants reported mood improvement after crying. In fact, it seems that people with certain kinds of depression could benefit from “induced crying,” which to me simply means another viewing of “Steel Magnolias.”
As a young therapist, I used to think I would have to find a new line of work because each time a patient told me a sad story, I cried. I was worried that people would feel adrift – here they were trying to get help with a problem and their therapist went weepy. Today, I accept the fact that someone’s story of loss or longing, regret or remorse may very well tug at my heart and force me to make use of the abundance of Kleenex I keep around. Sharing tears, like sharing pain, connects us and lessens a heavy burden.
The nineteenth century psychiatrist Henry Maudsley was far ahead of his time when he said, “The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep.” I try to keep that in mind every time I am tempted to hold back and save my mascara during a Hallmark commercial. Let the waterworks go. I’ll take full advantage of my 47 times per year.