Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Is Crying Good for You?

Scientists aren't sure. It helps to write down your thoughts afterwards.

Many women love a good cry. (You hear this less often from men, though they'll confess to crying at movies).  

I used to love to cry, and I realized that this was because I suffered from a chronically stuffed up nose and crying irrigated it. Now, I use a squeeze bottle (it's the same concept as a Neti Pot) to get saline water into my sinuses. I don't cry as often, but I still like it.

Two of my female friends who have PhDs in psychology research love to cry. They say it's good for them, and they think for others, particularly if  you write down your thoughts afterward when your head is clear.

Psychodynamic therapy rests on a core concept that we are hobbled by old emotions or thoughts and that crying can prevent new hurts from getting buried or release those old ones--i.e. "it's good to get it out of your system."  In her book Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment (Routledge, 2005), Judith Kay Nelson reports that over two-thirds of mental health practitioners actively promote crying as a therapy tool.

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And why wouldn't they? When researchers ask people whether a good cry makes them feel better, they overwhelmingly say yes.

Yet in laboratory-based experiments, subjects who cry at a sad movie clip report feeling worse afterwards than those who don't.

It's not so surprising that a lab experiment wouldn't match real life. Lab tears aren't the same as tears from grief over a lost parent or memories of childhood humiliations.

University of South Florida psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg and his colleagues Lauren Bylsma and Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets have analyzed over 3000 detailed reports of sobbing outside a lab. They concluded that criers who were comforted by others felt better, and that crying was more likely to be helpful if the painful event was in the past and seemed resolved.

It makes sense that adult crying is related to infant pleas for comfort. We've all seen toddlers wail and then after no response or a brief response from a parent turn their attention elsewhere and be beaming seconds later. Those tears do seem to be bids for attention.

But my two friends do their big cries on their own. (I myself tend to cry around other people and am a little afraid of a big cry by myself, though it happens).

Emotional tears aren't the same as ordinary tears, but seem to contain more protein, prolactin, manganese, potassium, and serotonin. One argument is that getting rid of the manganese is good for you.

Crying for joy and crying from pain are also clearly emotionally distinct from crying to release hurtful emotions.

Crying can build community, as at a funeral, or in a support group or between a couple. It can also make others uncomfortable, of course, and they may show disapproval, even subtly.

You need to know your audience. I once wept copiously when a boyfriend was breaking up with me. He had been a Los Angeles cop and my drama was no problem for him. He patiently listened and stood his ground calmly, and the event ended with both of us feeling pretty good.

But I have heard a friend talk bitterly about an ex, who "keeps calling me up and crying!"

The best advice may be to pull out a notebook or get a friend on the phone after a solo cry. And then go do something soothing or fun.

For editing or writing coaching, contact me at expertediting.org.

 

 

 

 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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