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Brooke Siler

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Stress Relief: Why Crying Supports Emotional Wellness

Posted: 07/04/10 11:00 AM ET

One of the seven essentials of finding and balancing wellness that I mentioned in my last post was the act of crying -- or "psychogenic lachrymations," as the medical community might refer to the act. Ironically, it's nearly seven months post-post and I am still taken by the act.

Okay, so here's what I have to say about crying: It's good! Es bueno! C'est bon!

I know it's awkward, touchy-feely, and downright uncomfortable for many, but please, don't give me any hooey about it making you look weak or it meaning something so much more than it does. The bottom line is that it's just as valid a release mechanism as screaming or yelling and infinitely more kind than punching or kicking. So what's the big deal?

An article I read recently on babies with colic speculated that the tendency for them to cry so hard may be their immature nervous systems communicating the overload of stimuli from everyday life. I think many of us can relate to that! But let's just say our nervous systems have matured, and we can also point to the fact that physiologically, crying is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation. Just because you stop yourself from sad crying doesn't mean you're happy. In fact, you may be "the string that's only one guitar pluck away from fraying."

Professor Roger Baker, a consultant clinical psychologist and visiting professor at Bournemouth University, told the UK's Daily Mail that "crying is the transformation of distress into something tangible, and that the process itself helps to reduce the feeling of trauma."

Good stuff! So why do we have it in so bad for the criers? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the vast majority of us were brought up being angrily told to "stop crying?" Or my personal favorite, "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about." (Hey, no thanks, actually got something pretty effective I'm working on already!)

Are we so detached from ourselves and fixed in the reverence of suppression -- he who shows the least emotion wins -- that we resent the expressions of sadness, fear and frustration through tears? It's not my fault if you're uncomfortable when I cry -- maybe it's you who needs to look a little closer at that. I mean come on, lighten up! (not you of course).

Some of our most famously repressed world neighbors are working it out amongst themselves and embracing the act. Britain's first "crying club," called Loss, opened in 2007 with strong influence from Japan because in Japan crying is all the rage. The Japanese call it the "crying boom" and instead of going winding down at a karaoke bar after work, business people are watching "tear films" at crying clubs. There is also a huge demand for sad TV dramas and books, each graded by its ability to induce tears.

Before we judge them let's remember that over here we write song after endless love song about crying (I just found 30 on my first Google try). Hell, there wouldn't be country music at all without crying as an option (I know what you're thinking, but don't say it, some people live for the stuff).

So what kind of hypocrites are we who literally buy into the notion of crying (I loved the movie; it was a real tear-jerker. I laughed so hard I cried. I went home and had a good cry), but when it happens right in front of us we want to shut it down, shut it up, dismiss and insult it (Cry baby! What a girl! Sissy!).

Wait a minute -- no one really says sissy anymore. I take that one back.

What's really happening here is that when someone is emoting right in front of us, it forces us to look at feelings in ourselves that we often don't want to. And how dare you make me feel something when I wasn't looking. So here we are in relation to one another, one of us emoting and the other squirming. Now you're just annoyed and feel slightly helpless standing here in front of me while I wail. What are you supposed to do? Oh god, do you have to hug me or something? You know what, you're just going to tell me it'll be okay and that I should stop crying because my crying isn't helping anything anyway ... screeeeeech (car screeching to a halt). Um, actually it's helping me calm down so I don't set wheels in motion that will ultimately lead me down a path of destruction. I'm down-regulating my nervous system my friend. Respect the tears!

William Frey II, a biochemist at the St Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, found that tears aren't just salt water; they contain leucine enkephalin, an endorphin that modulates pain, and hormones such as prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormone, released at times of stress. So crying might just be your body flushing out excess stress hormones. Also, research has shown that people with stress-related conditions, such as colitis and ulcers, are less likely to be big criers. Experimental psychologist Alex Goetz, who founded leading health risk management company General Health Inc, says: "Tears serve an important purpose. Emotional tears, shed in moments of intense feeling, carry stress hormones and are a way of getting rid of them. Even if crying embarrasses you, it signals that you've reached a level of stress that's detrimental to your health."

Crying regulates us. It's the steam valve on the tea kettle, or perhaps those of us more sensitive-types that irk you so are even privy to a world of emotional nuances that you champion suppressors are not! But guess what? We all run into those days sooner or later. You know the ones, where the thread finally comes all the way undone and the seams fly wide open. The day with unexpected twists and turns that finally brings you to your knees. And when that day comes -- and if it hasn't come yet, don't you worry, it's on its way -- who will you come running to? That's right, your old friend sensitive Sally. And she's right there for you, the way you really need her to be: open, non-judgmental, kind and empathetic. And she doesn't even need to say a word. She just listens and holds the space open for all that pent-up emotion to come tumbling out of you. And she's not bothered by the force of your feelings because they don't belong to her and she knows that. She knows where you start and she ends.

And when you're feeling all weak and embarrassed for showing your underbelly and you apologize for dropping all your scary and complicated humanness all over her floor, she'll just smile softly and let you know it's okay. And not because it's going to be okay, but because it already is.