Are all cries good for you?

Some cries keep you distant from self and others

Posted Oct 22, 2010

A "good" cry is connected to deeply felt sensations of warm tears, blurry vision, a sense of vulnerability, relief, and with emotion, resonating in sound and feeling within the body sense of the crier and the listener. Because it is felt in the body sense, it can thereby help to activate the regulatory and immune systems of the body that serve to restore optimal function. According to Judith Kay Nelson, "A good cry is restorative, creative, and cleansing. It can help us heal and regain a sense of hope. However, a good cry is paradoxical: it is about pain and relief, despair and hope."

Cries of this type have been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), that part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that stimulates relaxation responses to the internal organs such that breathing and heart rate slow and digestion can resume in a normal way. The parasympathetic nervous system activates the lachrymal glands of the eyes to stimulate tears, and it also stimulates the production of saliva and digestive fluids. Before the start of a good cry, there may be a build-up of sympathetic nervous system (arousal) activation as a result of a perceived need to suppress the crying. As the need to cry outweighs the risk of exposure, sympathetic activation changes over to parasympathetic as the cry unfolds in time.

While other animals have tear ducts to cleanse the eyes, humans are the only species with emotional tears. Tears that arise from a good cry have a different composition than tears that normally lubricate the eye. Emotionally induced tears contain the hormones of prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and the natural opiate (pain reliever) leucine enkephalin. Prolactin stimulates breast feeding in women but also plays a role in feelings of sexual gratification and interpersonal connection in both genders, similar to that of oxytocin. ACTH is a stress hormone and a precursor to cortisol. This means that good crying releases and flushes toxic stress hormones from the body, calms and soothes, and creates fellow feelings. Females produce more prolactin than males, which may partially explain their tendency to cry about 4 to 5 times as frequently and men.

Imagine that someone close to you has been distressed about something. When you see that person, you offer a hug and their tears come effortlessly. The person can now feel the pain and grief that had been held back. Then the person's body settles, relaxes, and molds into your arms and body. The person feels relieved, safe and comforted, flooded with warmth and gratitude, all feelings that you both can share in the present moment.

A good cry is a form of body sensing in the subjective emotional present. Not all cries have such beneficial effects nor are they deeply felt. More has been written about "felt" and "false" smiles than about cries. So-called "felt" smiles tend to involve the full face with a raising of the cheeks and a crinkling around the eye corners (so-called Duchenne smiles, named for the neurologist who first wrote a description). Felt smiles occur in engaging, enjoyable, and humorous situations. "False" smiles involve primarily the mouth, with lip corners upturned, but not the rest of the face. False smiles occur in social situations where one is required to be polite or submissive. These are smiles we give in elevators and when confronted by a demanding boss. There are feelings around these smiles, but they are not feelings of enjoyment.

The false forms of crying actually suppress body sense awareness states, as if these cries are used to cover up feeling or redirect them elsewhere. False cries typically occur without tears.A protest cry, for example, has a different interpersonal scenario than a good cry. You might notice that the person, when obviously distressed, has trouble opening up. You offer the hug or some other invitation to share. The cry sounds angry to you and you start to feel like it's all your fault. If you touch or hold the person, their body tenses up as if to push you away or exclude you. This is a sign that the person is shutting off the deeper pain and replacing it with some kind of protest: "I don't deserve this. It's all your fault." If you don't let yourself get sucked into the blame game, the person may come to realize that it is safe for them to feel more deeply.

Dramatic crying has yet a different shape and feeling. The cry seems almost purposeful, melodramatic, and self-centered. There is no way to really comfort the crying, and in fact, you may experience the cry as manipulative. The crier acts needy and hurt in the hope that you will pay attention or yield to a demand. Like crying wolf, these people become tiring after a while and you may begin to avoid contact with them. If you can avoid giving in just to keep the person from going on, it may help that person to focus more on the self to find out what is really wrong.

The most distressing type of cry for the listener is infantile crying. The person's lips may tremble and the body tense up or shake. It seems like the person is unreachable, "lost" inside themselves, and we have a feeling of helplessness to reach them. This type of cry may involve not only active suppression of feeling but also dissociative qualities such as "leaving" the body. There may not be much you can do in this situation except wait for the episode to pass and talk about what happened. You could say, "I felt shut out," which may help the person have a clearer body sense of how it feels to others when they "go away."

All of this is important because of the powerful healing, wholeness, and relief that comes whenever we activate our body sense, feeling our sensations and emotions in the present moment without thought or judgment. If you or someone you know has a pattern of unfelt crying, it may point to forms of body sense suppression that are ultimately disruptive to physical and psychological well-being. In therapeutic situations, false crying needs to be discussed since the reasons for it often reveal developmental origins that can lead eventually to more direct connection to emotions and to good cries that are genuinely therapeutic.