Human beings are the only creatures able to shed tears in response to emotional stress. This is what makes us different from animals. But because of social, cultural or parental influence, crying makes us feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. How often have we heard the admonition “Big boys don’t cry.” It is dinned into the minds of children, that crying signifies weakness. An advertisement on TV showed how a boy who throughout his growing years was reminded that ‘boys don’t cry.’ He grew into an emotionally repressed adult and became moody, glum and short tempered. Later in life he turned into a tyrant and wife batterer and was convicted for domestic violence.
In ancient literature we read about great heroes who were not afraid to cry. Achilles cried at the death of his friend Petroclus. Aneas wept for the loss of his friends and companions in war. In Egyptian mythology Isis wept for the dead Osiris. In the Bible, we read that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. In recent times Presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Regan, Clinton and Bush (Sr) have been known to shed tears in public. So crying is not just the prerogative of women. Males also shed tears in public, disputing the belief that ‘boys don’t cry.’ Of course women cry more readily than men. But girls who break into sobs at the slightest provocation are called ‘cry babies’ and even suspected of emotional instability. Neurotics cry easily and alexithymics don’t cry at all.
God has endowed human beings with a gamut of emotions – to feel, to cry, to be happy or sad or angry. Crying is a healthy response to some of life’s problems. We shed tears of joy when we are happy. People who receive unexpected awards or recognition are overwhelmed with tears of joy. Some people cry out of frustration. Children, who cannot have their way or cannot retaliate against elders, exhibit their frustration through tantrums. But usually crying is associated with grief. The loss of a loved one or a job or a business or even a pet are hurtful psychological experiences which create a great deal of stress. Tears are one way to relieve tension and initiate the process of healing.
Crying is a normal response to bereavement. When sadness reaches a peak of intensity, tears bring therapeutic release. Once the crying stops the body relaxes, heart rate slows, breathing becomes regular and blood pressure is back to normal. So crying is actually a transitional point between tension and feeling better. It will not make problems disappear but will help put them in perspective so that one can deal with them in a level headed way.
Even 2000 years ago the Greeks and Romans were aware that shedding of tears relieved tension. “It is a relief to weep. Grief is satisfied and carried off by tears,” said the poet Ovid. Aristotle was of the opinion that crying “cleanses the mind” of suppressed emotions. Freud and Breuer considered crying “an involuntary reflex to relieve tension and allow blocked negative emotions to be released.”
Professor William Frey of the University of Minnesota in his study said that chemicals which build up during emotional stress are removed through tears. Tears associated with emotions have a higher level of certain proteins and chemicals such as magnesium and potassium. Manganese which affects moods was found to be thirty times of greater concentration in tears than in blood serum. So unalleviated stress was likely to cause heart attacks or even damage certain areas of the brain.
The presence of the hormone Prolactin in tears explains why women cry more easily than men.
Alexander Fleming (discoverer of Penicillin) did a chemical analysis of tears and found that they contain an enzyme Lysozyme which dissolves the outer coat of many bacteria. Through suppression of tears we may suffer both physical and emotional consequences.
Weeping is not weakness. Those who put on a brave front and bottle up their emotions are merely internalizing their pain and suffer symptoms like headache, peptic ulcers, high blood pressure, irritability or depression. Inability to cry can make a person dysfunctional. Men giving vent to tears is now acceptable in society. In Japan they call it the ‘crying boom’ encouraging people to express their emotions.
God has placed in our bodies a natural provision for relief of tension and grief. Everyone grieves differently depending on one’s personality, coping skills, faith, nature of loss and tradition. In some cultures it is okay to cry loudly without inhibitions and make a show of their grief. I witnessed a death in a Khurdish community in Iran. It was frightening to see women tearing their hair, clawing at their cheeks to draw blood and rolling on the ground, and screaming. They believed that the departed soul would rest in peace knowing how dearly he or she was loved.
Therapeutic Value of tears:
• Crying is something personal. It is not an exhibition of grief but a physical manifestation of internal emotions.
• It is the beginning of a process of dealing with sadness. “We are healed of suffering only when we experience it the full,” said Marcel Proust.
• Crying helps to visualize a new scenario for our lives. It helps accept that our loss is real and even while we continue to grieve, we begin to envisage a life without the person we have lost.
• Crying is cathartic. It releases toxins and pent up emotions, helping us to handle our loss instead of being afraid of it.
• Crying is effective in starting the process of healing. “It is not only a human response to sorrow and frustration but a healthy one,” says William Frey. According to his study 85% of women and 75% of men felt less angry or sad after crying. In Ancient Middle East mourners would collect their tears in wineskins and place them on the tomb of their loved ones.
• Crying may also be a call for support from relatives and friends. “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted,” says the Bible. Friends and relatives should allow the griever to vent his pain and help validate his grief.