Have you ever felt like laughing with relief after a solid sobbing session? Or “had a good cry” and felt better about that argument, mistake, or insult?
It turns out there’s a lot to be said for the simple act of crying. Many of us are taught that it’s a sign of weakness or something to be embarrassed about, but it turns out that ‘crybabies’ may be on to something.
I, too, was pretty surprised to learn just how beneficial crying is while I was poring through the research for this blog. Did you know, for example, that emotional tears release feel-good hormones such as oxytocin (the ‘love’ hormone) and leucine enkephalin, the body’s natural pain killer?
Or that crying is a sign of healing, according to clinical psychologists?
In this article, I’ll explore why the simple act of releasing tears can be emotionally and physically soothing during times of considerable stress. Read on to learn about the psychological benefits of crying when we use it as a healthy outlet, and how you can save it for later when it’s just not the right moment!
Why Do We Cry When We’re Stressed?
Crying is a completely normal reaction to emotionally stressful situations, and it’s even one of the healthiest responses we’re prone to!
A huge amount of research has looked into what happens when we cry and why we do it at all, and what the data reveals is pretty fascinating.
As it turns out, there are actually three kinds of tears that we release:
- Basal tears – which nourish and lubricate our eyes (these are being produced almost all the time)
- Reflex tears – which are produced in response to a stimulus (like a fly), and
- Emotional tears – which contain higher levels of toxins and stress hormones like cortisol.
All our tears are released through the same (lacrimal) gland, but emotional tears stem from a different source than the first two types. While reflex tears are triggered by the eye region that’s being irritated, emotional tears come from the limbic system. This is where we process emotions such as pain, sadness, and hurt.
But what on earth do they do?
Benefits of Crying
Emotional or stress-related tears play a lot of beneficial roles when we humans are under stress. Consider the following examples…
- Tears are one way our bodies excrete stress hormones that can build up when we are under pressure. These chemicals, which include cortisol, can cause a lot of health problems when they build up.
- Crying is a healthy outlet for negative feelings that we might otherwise keep inside or repress. Emotional suppression is a maladaptive coping style that studies have shown can contribute to poorer immune functioning, heart health, and overall mental wellbeing.
- Crying also lowers our levels of manganese; an element that leads to irritability, stress, and aggressive behavior
- It also relaxes some of the bodily tension that is associated with an activated sympathetic nervous system (stress!), releasing our muscles and restoring our equilibrium.
- Finally, studies show that crying can increase attachment behavior, helping us bond with others, encouraging them to empathize with us, and inviting support from those loved ones.
These reasons are why I created the Bursting Into Tears Stress Coaching Card. But if crying is so cathartic, do you still need coaching tips for holding back?
3 Ways To Stop The Tears
Obviously, there are times when it’s just not convenient to let out all that you’re feeling–when it’s best to save them for later, like many other coping strategies in our deck of Stress Coaching Cards.
Whether you’re with a customer or minutes away from a big meeting, these tips can help you delay the waterworks for a more suitable time later on.
1. Take A Literal Step Back
“He made me cry!” or “She hurt my feelings!” are just a few things we often hear from tearful children, but as we grow up, we tend to realize that’s not quite accurate. Why is that?
Behavioral psychologist Jerry Bubrick summarizes it nicely: “It’s not what the other person says that’s causing you to cry,” he explains. Rather, “It’s how you interpret it.”
If feelings of hurt or frustration have you on the verge of tears, Bubrick recommends putting some physical space between you and the person who’s causing the upset. Take a literal step back and choose not to let this particular offense reduce you to a crying mess–you’d be surprised how often this can be enough to divert the waterworks.
2. Trick Your Brain
Have you heard of facial feedback? This behavioral scientific theory, which is often linked back to Darwin and James, hypothesizes that our facial expressions can impact how we cognitively process emotions.
A Columbia University study investigating the phenomenon even reports that participants who viewed a scary video described feeling less intense emotions when they simply didn’t frown through the screening.
This ties in with research showing that simulated tearing of participants’ eyes was related to higher reported feelings of sadness–simply wetting their cheeks with fake tears was enough to make 53.8% of subjects feel unhappy.
Based on this research, keeping a neutral face is another potential way to stop a surge of unwanted tears. The next time the urge to cry strikes when it’s really not convenient, try avoiding the triggers that lead to tears:
- Lower your eyebrows
- Stop them from knitting together, and
- Relaxing your mouth.
3. Do The Opposite!
What if the above tips don’t work for you?
Another way to stem the flow is by seeking out an action that’s completely the opposite of crying. Like laughing: look up jokes online or check out a funny video!
Data has long shown that smiling can boost our mood and emotional health, while positively impacting the way that we’re perceived by others. But it’s also a brilliant way to prevent us from crying, which can help you save the tears for a more fitting time and place.
So go ahead and smile or laugh, and don’t be afraid that you’re suppressing or internalizing your feelings. Your goal is only to feel a little calmer in the moment, so you can process your feelings later on–in a place that suits you much better.