Whenever I am in the presence of someone crying, or if I am crying in front of someone else, there is always an apology. ‘I’m sorry,’ we say as we wipe away our tears. Why do we do this? We don’t apologise for any other outpourings of emotion: laughing, squealing with excitement, or yelling with fear. Research indicates that 88.8 per cent of people feel better after crying, and 8.4 per cent feel worse. So why is crying considered to be embarrassing and even shameful?
TYPES OF TEARS
There is a difference between the tears we shed when we are cutting onions, the tears we shed when we are grieving, and the tears we shed when we are overcome with love and joy. According to William Frey II, a biochemist at the St Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, unhappy tears contain enkephalins (an endorphin that modulates pain) and hormones such as prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormone, which are released at times of stress. So it seems that overwhelmed, depressed or sad crying might be our body’s way of flushing out excess stress hormones.
On the other hand, when we are ‘moved to tears’ by a beautiful piece of music, a work of art, a heartfelt compliment, or, let’s face it, a tearjerker commercial (think Qantas’ latest ‘Feels Like Home’ ad), our tears may contain oxytocin, which is the love and empathy hormone. So crying as a result of a positive emotion can actually make us feel happier.
Either way, crying will generally make us feel better!
DIFFERENCES IN CRYING BETWEEN MEN & WOMEN
Until the age of puberty, boys and girls cry an equal amount. But after puberty, men cry an average of seven times a year whereas women cry an average of forty-seven times a year. It is thought that the hormones oestrogen and prolactin increase crying in women, while testosterone suppresses crying in men. Further, it has been shown that men may in fact excrete their stress hormones and toxins through their sweat, rather than their tears. This explains why men sweat more, and cry less than women.
There may also be an evolutionary reason why women tend to cry more during menstruation. Research performed in 2011 suggested that men may be biologically primed to react to a woman’s tears. According to a study conducted by Noam Sobel, professor of neurobiology at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, even smelling a woman’s tears can dramatically reduce male testosterone levels and to a lesser extent, their sense of sexual arousal. So, women may cry during menstruation to reduce the testosterone levels of men because women are unable to procreate during this time. Amazing!
The takeaway message from all this is that crying can play an important role in a happy life. It is a sign that we needed to release excess stress hormones and toxins from our system, or that we are overwhelmed with empathy.
END NOTE: Frequent crying is not always good for you and can be a sign of more serious conditions, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and postnatal depression. If you have not recently endured a traumatic event* and you cry regularly (everyday or every few days) and you don’t feel better after crying, then it may be a signal of an underlying condition that you need to explore. *Traumatic events can include anything from the death of a loved one, losing your job, the end of a relationship etc.
If you have recently endured a traumatic event, then cry as much and as often as you need to.