Why a good cry can be good for you

I read an article in a magazine recently that really struck a chord and I've been thinking about it since so I wanted to share my thoughts with you.

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In the latest issue of Breathe magazine, Kate Orson writes about 'The healing art of listening to tears' and how so often we hold them back, keep ourselves busy and distracted, and hide our emotions from those around us to avoid embarrassment. The article mentions research on the crying response in babies, saying that apart from alerting a parent to a physical need waiting to be met (feeding etc), babies cry in order to heal and recover from unpleasant or stressful experiences and to help process new feelings and sensations as they adapt to the stimulating world around them. But then we try everything we can to stop babies crying, to ease their distress (or our own), and as children grow older they are told they're 'so brave' if they don't cry. By the time we're adults, not crying has become so internalised, we need those other coping mechanisms (distraction, comfort eating, drinking, exercise, scrolling through social media...) to try to find other ways to externalise or clamp down on our emotions.

According to the article, scientific research has found that tears contain cortisol - the main stress hormone - so when we cry we are literally expelling stress from our bodies. Why on earth wouldn't we want to do that?! 

Orson suggests that by noticing, acknowledging and accepting the urge to cry, and sitting with the emotions behind this, we can begin to process traumas, stress and frustration, worry and overwhelm, so that we're able to let go of them and move towards a more balanced and positive frame of mind. That's not to say that a mega blub-fest to your best friend or even a therapist will be the answer to all your problems, but by letting yourself feel different emotions as they come up - perhaps by practising mindfulness, yoga, meditation, or other techniques to help you be present in the here and now - you give yourself a natural way to heal so that you are better placed to cope with different experiences without letting them weigh you down and creating more serious mental health problems.

It also means, if we can get past the embarrassment of crying in front of other people, we're more able to be empathetic to their problems, and let them see that we're not perfect and have our own struggles. Not an easy ask in our culture (that British stiff upper lip) and in many workplaces where vulnerability is weakness.

From personal experience, I know I usually feel much better after a good cry, even if that better is just letting out the physical tension and feeling too exhausted to think or worry about anything else. But I also know that I do most of my crying in private, where no-one can see my blotchy, tear-stained face, and I try to keep the sobbing to a minimum so they can't hear me either. Lots of things make me cry, and sometimes it's all I can do to stop the tears falling until I'm on my own. There have been times in my life when I've felt that I'd better not cry, because someone else needs me to be strong and help with practical things, and times when I couldn't really put a finger on what was making me cry, certainly not in a way that I could explain to anyone, but it felt like the tears were never going to stop. I would class myself as a highly sensitive person, empathic, and an introvert. So sometimes it really doesn't take much for my nervous system to get so overwhelmed that crying in frustration is the only response that makes any sense to me. Sometimes it will be a fraught atmosphere caused by other peoples' arguments, or talking to someone who is going through a really tough time, or lack of sleep, or too much noise when I'm trying to think, or when I've really just had enough and want to go and hide please. Often it will just be a film or TV programme that hits a nerve or causes an emotional reaction - romantic happy endings get me every time.

I've been through periods of depression (the clinical kind, where the doctor prescribes tablets and a course of counselling), usually when my life circumstances have been too much to cope with all at once, and eventually something has to give - usually that dam of tears. The trouble is, then I get to that point where other people don't know how to deal with me crying and get fed up and tell me to pull myself together. It has taken a long time for me to get to a place where I have other resources that I can call on to help me work through the emotions in private so that I can be some kind of company to the people around me. Usually it's time and space by myself, letting the tears fall, listening to some calming music or a guided meditation, and perhaps trying to write down what's going on in my head and heart to try and get it in some sort of sensible order. On a broader scale, I'm trying to find regular ways for me to connect to myself and my physical and emotional state - I'm doing yoga every morning to check in with my body, I sit to meditate most days too, I make time to be outdoors and get fresh air and sunshine, and I'm learning to recognise my 'trigger' situations and know when to tell myself to let it go if it's something I can have no influence or control over. Self talk is a big part of this - recognising when the nagging negative voice is getting louder and trying to bring me down, and having the counter-arguments and the positive affirmations ready to keep myself on an even keel.

I'll be honest, it was the article's revelation that crying can be literally, physiologically healing by removing unwanted stress from the body that most resonated with me. I've spent so many years bottling things up and holding things in to the point where they eventually explode, that if I had just had that permission to let myself cry, perhaps I could have saved myself a lot of heartache.

So I'm going to give you permission here and now, today, to have a really good cry whenever the urge next takes you, to let those tears fall, to sit with how you are feeling in that moment, and to help yourself heal. If you have to do it in private for now, that's OK, but don't feel ashamed of yourself that you gave in to weakness - you didn't, you did one of the strongest things you can by acknowledging the truth. And we should all definitely be doing that more often.