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Let it all out: How crying heals and tears detox

Weepy moments, whether after a breakup or after India’s boys in blue have faced a humiliating drubbing, help most of us get over the transient trauma, but does a good cry really make you feel better?

health and fitness Updated: Oct 03, 2015 16:00 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
Does crying really alter your mood?(Shuttertock)

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi choked up and wiped away a tear while talking about his ma’s struggle to bring him up at the Facebook Town Hall earlier this week, he made it cool for tough guys in India to cry over things that really matter to them, like their ma.

PM Narendra Modi speaks at the Facebook HQ. (AP)

Weepy moments, whether after a breakup or after India’s boys in blue have faced a humiliating drubbing, help most of us get over the transient trauma, but does a good cry really make you feel better?

Yes, report researchers from the Netherlands in the journal Motivation and Emotion, but the benefits take an hour or two to kick in. For the study, a group of people were asked to think over how they felt after watching two tear-jerkers, La vita e bella and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale.

The poster for Hachi: A Dog’s Story tsarring Richard Gere.

As expected, the mood of the non-criers was unaffected after the films ended. Those who wept, however, felt low immediately after the film ended but their mood returned to the level before the screenings just 20 minutes later. After 90 minutes, all criers reported feeling better than they did before the films started, irrespective of how many times they had cried while watching.

By the rule of the thumb, crying improves the mood of most people, but not all. One in three reported no improvement in a mood and a tenth felt worse after crying, reported a study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Those who got social support showed more improvements in mood compared to those who didn’t, while hostile situations -- such as crying in public or in the workplace -- led to embarrassment and other negative emotions, which neutralised the benefits.

Women tend to cry more than men do, mostly because crying is still regarded by many, particularly men, as a sign of weakness. On average, women shed tears 47 times in a year and men, seven. Crying levels are the same across genders till puberty, after which testosterone reduces crying in boys while oestrogen and prolactin makes girls more weepy.

Is there a “bad” cry?

Are there moments when crying can actually do your mind and body more harm than good? Whether crying heals or hurts depends on the situation and the personality of the person, shows a review of 4,000 people in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

People who are depressed and anxious felt worse after crying, as do people who lack insight into their emotional lives (a condition known as alexithymia), because in both situations they are not able to transform the emotive moment into something positive.

Crying also has physical effects, such as slower breathing, but if the person is agitated, it can signs of stress and arousal, such as increased heart rate and sweating.

Dr William H. Frey II, a biochemist at the St Paul-Ramsey Medical Centre in Minnesota, U.S., identified chemical differences between emotional or stress-related tears and “reflex” tears caused by physical irritants such as pollutants or sliced onions. Emotional tears have higher amounts of the protein-based hormones prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and leucine enkephalin (a natural painkiller), all of which are produced by the body under stress. Weeping helps to wash these toxic chemicals out of the body, elevating mood and lowering stress, which is linked to a score of health problems including lowered immunity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes and obesity.

Wiping tears away

Apart from removing toxic substances from the body, crying uplifts mood and lowers both emotional and physical pain. Tears are also a cry for help and people are more likely to be supportive when they see someone weeping than not. Crying also signals vulnerability and a need for physical touch, such as a hug or reassuring hand on the arm, which again lowers stress.

The big downside is watching someone cry may make you feel helpless, awkward and uncomfortable. It shifts the level of intimacy within seconds, leaving people undecided about what they are expected to do. Doing nothing is likely to make the crier feel worse, so try to be supportive, depending on the situation and how well you know the person.

Temperament plays a role in how much some cries, with people who have faced heartbreak more likely to weep, more so if they still delve in the past. But if a person around you breaks down frequently, it is likely to be a sign of depression, mood disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, which can best be dealt with by a professional.

Watch PM Narendra Modi choke up at the Facebook meeting here

First Published: Oct 03, 2015 15:58 IST