As children, most of us were dissuaded from crying. Emotional expression, and crying in particular, were discouraged. Parents often scolded teary-eyed children, and teasing was common in elementary school when classmates started crying. These days, however, psychiatrists are touting the benefits of a good cry – stating that the emotional release can be good for your mental and physical health.
Since childhood, people were largely taught to restrain their emotions. Anger, resentment, sadness, and other similar feelings were not to be expressed or articulated. As children grew into adulthood, people learned to regulate these emotions, to the point that such sentiments were suppressed or stifled.
On International Self-Care Day, Stephen Sideroff, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that keeping emotions in check may affect people’s mental and physical health.
International Self-Care Day is an annual observance that began on July 24, 2011 to highlight self-care as a vital foundation of health. The event falls on the 24th day of the seventh month, to symbolize the importance of practicing self-care 24/7.
“We don’t hold emotions in only our heads. We store them in our bodies, too,” Sideroff said. “These feelings have energy. You (then) have to constrict in different ways to hold them in.” He explained that this interferes with natural, instinctive processes and since the body’s need is still there, this creates an imbalance in one’s mental and physical health.
He added, “If you’re hungry, you eat. You find food to resolve and address that imbalance.” Psychiatrists agree that feelings of anger, pain, and sadness have to be resolved to restore balance, or else emotions are expressed inappropriately – such as lashing out at family and friends.
Dr. Judith Orloff, author of “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People” and a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Psychiatric Clinical Faculty, stated that emotional restraint can hurt, and lead to an inability to experience joy, love, and other positive feelings.
Tearing up and releasing negative motions thus contributes to good mental and physical health. “Crying and honoring your own needs and sensitivities is a critical part of self-care and being loving with oneself, being aware of one’s needs and honoring them to benefit the health of the body, mind and spirit,” she said.
Why do people cry? Psychiatrists say there are three types of tears – emotional, which are triggered by strong feelings, whether negative or positive; basal tears, which lubricate the eyes; and reflex tears, which are released when eyes get irritated.
Humans are the only species that cry into adulthood and experience emotional tears, which, according to Lauren Bylsma, an assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, may have “more complex, social functions to elicit support and comfort from others or to have communicative functions or social bonding functions.”
The psychiatrist adds that crying releases stress, which, in turn, makes one vulnerable. Some people may think that vulnerability is again a sign of weakness, but letting your guard down is a way of recovering from stress and tension, and allows the return of mental and physical health balance.
People often report that they feel better after a good cry, and this is particularly important in stressful times. Bylsma shared that crying forces us to analyze feelings, priorities, and the triggers for the outburst. Experts also agree that unprocessed feelings provide a path to depression. Emotional relief is thus essential to maintaining mental and physical health.
Improving self-care thus requires moving away from traditional norms and beliefs when it comes to crying and strong emotions. Men, for instance, are expected to be made of steel, and face a greater stigma around crying. Parents are also often discouraged from crying in front of their kids to keep them from being upset.
There has to be a greater appreciation of emotional expression as part of good mental and physical health. Still, while emotional relief is important, psychiatrists add that crying is also contextual. Some may want to go on a walk or move to a different room to cry. Others may need emotional support or prefer to cry alone.
Fortunately, there is a growing understanding that crying is actually healthy. In Japan, “crying clubs” called “rui-katsu” (tear-seeking) have become popular, where people gather to participate in cathartic sob fests.
Psychiatrists believe that such clubs may be particularly attractive to people who are not comfortable at showing their emotions. Sideroff said, “I would imagine that (crying in groups) facilitates the acceptance of crying and makes it easier for people to do so.”
Maintaining mental and physical health during moments of extreme stress and isolation, such as the ongoing pandemic, is particularly crucial. Orloff stated, “Crying is an essential form of relief and it’s crucial to process the loss, uncertainty and stress of the pandemic.”
She added, “You don’t want to become numb or turn to addictions. You want to be able to use the body’s natural healing mechanisms to your advantage.”
So don’t worry about what other people say – You may not even know why you’re feeling agitated, but if you need to, go ahead and cry! Psychiatrists say it’s actually good for you!