• Luli Faber

The Truth about Tears

Reproduced from: http://www.yourstressmatters.com/stress9ab.htm

(Source: William H. Frey, II, Ph.D. with Muriel Langseth, CRYING: The Mystery of Tears. Copyright © 1985, Winston Press, Inc. with permission of the author)

To Cry or Not to Cry

"Sorrows which find no vent in tears may soon make other organs weep." Sir Henry Maudsley

Hans Selye spent most of his life studying the effects of stress on our bodies and how our systems struggle to adapt to our ever-changing environment. He emphasizes that all stress is not harmful and distinguishes between eustress-- positive stimulation and challenge that help us achieve--and distress--harmful, unpleasant stress, often the result of too many or too abrupt changes, boredom, frustration, or lack of purpose.(Hans Selye, The Stress of Life (revised edition, New York:McGraw Hill, 1976),74 and passim.)

Since individuals react differently to the same stimuli, we must take heed from the Seven Sages who advised, "Know thyself." One person's distress may be someone else's eustress. In his books Selye writes that we must not avoid stress but instead use it creatively to motivate personal achievement and at the same time maintain a sense of inner balance.

Stress and Disease

Until the last few decades, only Selye and a handful of researchers devoted their lives to studying stress and its relationship to disease. Stress and its ill-effects have always been a part of living, but not until recently has the subject become the focus of much scientific research-- perhaps because the world seems to be suffering from a "stress epidemic."

In a list of the 200 top-selling drugs in the United States in 1984, Inderal (a drug prescribed for high blood pressure) was number one; Valium (a tranquilizer) was number four; Tagamet (an ulcer medication) was number seven.("2.1% Increase in Refills Pushes 1984 Rxs 1.7% Ahead of 1983," Pharmacy Times (April 1985),31.) In response to this stress epidemic, medicine has branched off into new areas of psychobiology which focus on ways to combat stress- related illness and psychoneuroimmunology, a field that explores how emotional states affect the body's defense systems.

No one knows whether life is really more stressful now or if we are just more aware of the world's uncertainties--nuclear threat, unemployment, abusive crimes--brought into our homes everyday on TV. I think people tend to imagine they live in a more stressful world than people in other time periods. Those early American pioneers who cleared the land, and faced harsh winters after poor harvests probably experienced as much stress as any modern suburbanite. And they had little medicine to treat illness in those days. People died of polio, smallpox, malaria, bacterial pneumonia, anthrax, and other diseases that are either prevented or easily treated today.

The subjects in our adult crying behavior study were asked, "Were you under any unusual emotional stress during the last month? Please describe." Over 40% of the male and female subjects responded that they were under unusual stress during the month they recorded their crying episodes. We thought this was strange, so we separated the responses of those who indicated unusual stress into two categories: major, when death, divorce, or major illness was involved; and minor, for other reasons such as concern over a college examination.

Of the 43% who reported they were under unusual emotional stress, we found that only 16% attributed their stress to major events, while 84% who responded "yes" to the stress question gave relatively minor reasons for their stress. Evidently, it is not unusual for people to feel they are under "unusual" emotional stress, even when no major life situation is threatened. In view of how we identify stress, it is not surprising that one of today's fastest growing fields is stress management, a multi-million dollar-a-year business. Classes in biofeedback, transcendental meditation, yoga, autogenic training, muscle-relaxation, or other methods of stress-reduction are being taught at hospitals, medical centers, and many major corporations.

Humans release stress in a variety of ways such as fighting, yelling, laughing, talking rapidly, exercising, and crying. In his book The Vital Balance, Dr. Karl Menninger writes, "Weeping is perhaps the most human and most universal of all relief measures."(Karl Menninger, The Vital Balance (New York: The Viking Press, 1963), 138.)

While emotional tears are only one of many release mechanisms for an overload of strong emotion and stress, they are easier to measure than other stress releasers. Although asking persons how they feel about various aspects of crying is subjective, the actual tears need no interpretation. They are either present or absent. Tears are one of the few aspects of involuntary emotional expression that provide something concrete to measure. Thus, the role which the release of tears plays in stress management lends itself to experimental verification.

Often when researchers want to learn about the purpose of a physiological process, they study those who do not have the ability to carry out the process. If emotional crying does make people feel better, as many suggest, then what happens to persons who cannot shed tears under stress?

In 1949 C. M. Riley described a group of children with two common features: They were unable to shed tears, and they had an abnormal reaction to mild anxiety. In these children emotional stress produced a number of symptoms described by Riley which included "transient extreme elevation of blood pressure, excessive sweating, salivation to the point of drooling, and the development of sharply demarcated erythematous blotches on the skin. ..." While more is now known about this syndrome, called familial dysautonomia, it is still not clear whether the inability of these children to secrete tears with their crying contributes to their extremely abnormal physical reactions to stress. (Conrad M. Riley et al., "Central Autonomic Dysfunction with Defective Lacrimation," Pediatrics 3 (1949): 468-78.)

Science has known for years that excessive emotional stress causes the release of hormones and other substances into the blood altering our chemical balance. It is known that the pituitary gland releases beta-endorphin, an opiate-like compound, and the hormones ACTH and prolactin into the blood stream in response to stress. ...stress also releases the catecholamines--epinephrine (adrenaline) from the adrenal gland, and norepinephrine from the sympathetic nervous system. Several scientists, including psychiatrist Daniel Funkenstein, have gone a step further and suggested that the particular emotion involved may determine which catecholamine is discharged into the blood.(Daniel H. Funkenstein, "The Physiology of Fear and Anger," Scientific American 192 (May 1955): 74-80.)

It is thought by many that there is a relationship between the suppression of emotions, psychological health, and disease. It is also generally accepted that crying is one way to expressing and releasing emotion. "Tears are the safety valves of the heart when too much pressure is laid upon it," wrote Albert Richard Smith. If emotional tearing reduces the effects of stress, then we may increase our susceptibility to a variety of physical and psychological problems when we suppress our tears. Selye write, "We are just beginning to see that many common diseases are largely due to errors in our adaptive response to stress. ...Many nervous and emotional disturbances, high blood pressure, gastric and duodenal ulcers, certain types of sexual, allergic, cardiovascular, and renal derangements appear to be essentially diseases of adaptations."(Hans Selye, The Stress of Life, xvi-xvii.)

Crying Frequency and Disease

As yet, no one has done any research measuring crying frequency in relation to illness. However, a study to examine the relationship between suppressed tears and specific stress-related disorders and between the free expression of tears and health was conducted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing in 1979 by Margaret Crepeau. She recognized that tears are one factor in emotional expression which can be explored in health and illness.

One hundred thirty-seven male and female subjects from Pittsburgh and other areas of the United States who were either healthy or had an ulcer or colitis, participated in the research. They filled out a three-part questionnaire to determine (1) how likely a person is to cry in a variety of situations, (2) what the person generally feels about crying, (3) what tears personally meant to the person.

Crepeau found that healthy persons (both make and female) are more likely to cry and have a more positive attitude toward tears than those persons with ulcers and colitis, two conditions thought to be aggravated by stress. (Margaret T. Crepeau, "A Comparison of the Behavior Patterns and Meanings of Weeping Among Adult Men and Women Across Three Health Conditions" Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1980.) So it is possible that anti-crying socialization may have adverse consequences on health.

While Crepeau's research is one of the few studies specifically exploring the relationship between tear suppression and disease, other theories concerning the role of tears in disease have been presented. A three-year study at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center suggested that depression often precedes the onset of the common cold. Based on this information, Merl Jackel speculated that colds may be "symbolically repressed tears. "(Merl Jackel, "The Common Cold and Depression," Hillside Hospital Journal xvii-2 (1968): 165-77.) (This speculation seems to ignore the role of viruses in causing colds.)

Other speculative theories linking asthma, urticaria (hives), and other physical conditions with the suppression of tears have also appeared in the scientific literature. (Franz Alexander, Psychosomatic Medicine (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1950), 139, 168. Leon J. Saul and C. Bernstein, "The Emotional Settings of Some attacks of Urticaria," Psychosomatic Medicine 3 (1941): 349-69. Joseph Kepecs, M. Robin, and M. Brunner, "Relationship between Certain Emotional States and Exudation into the Skin," Psychosomatic Medicine 13 (1951): 10-17. Thomas M. French, "Psychogenic Factors in Asthma," American Journal of Psychiatry 96 (1939): 91.)

Tears Alleviate Grief

Folk wisdom and literature contain many references to the fact that humans and animals become ill and die from grief. Until recently this epitaph could be found engraved on tombstones: "Died of a broken heart." During the last century scientific studies on bereavement have confirmed that the loss of a loved one, particularly a spouse, can lead to ill health and even death. Researchers found that widows with acquaintances who made it easy for them to cry and express their intense feelings were healthier than widows who experienced less encouragement from others to weep and discuss their feelings of grief. (David Maddison and Wendy L. Walker, "Factors Affecting the Outcome of Conjugal Bereavement," British Journal of Psychiatry 113 (October 1967): 1057-67.) This information supports the speakers in Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous passage in his poem "The Princess" written in 1847.

Home they brought her warrior dead. She nor swooned not uttered cry; All her maidens, watching, said, "She must weep or she will die."

Rees and Lutkins (1967) found that widowers are more likely to die soon after the death of their spouse than widows, and the overall risk for bereaved male relatives is twice that of females.(W. Dewi Rees and Sylvia G. Lutkins, "Morality of Bereavement," British Medical Journal 4 (1967): 13- 16.) In a similar extensive 1981 study, Knut Helsing and his associates found mortality rates were about the same for widowed as for married women, but were considerably higher for widowed men than married men. (Knud J. Helsing, Moyses Szklo, and George Comstock, "Factors Associated with Morality after Widowhood," American Journal of Public Health 71 (August 1981): 802-09.) Dr. George Engels' research on sudden deaths found that more men than women die following a distressing major life event, and men died at an earlier age. (Dianne Hales, "Psycho-immunity," Science Digest (November 1981): 12-14.)

Dr. W. Dewi Rees offers an explanation for this higher incidence of male deaths following a death in the family in his article, "Bereavement and Illness," in the Journal of Thanatology. He writes, "It is conceivable that the increased mortality associated with bereavement found among men, when compared with women, may be due to the greater repression of overt feeling traditionally required of men and to the cultural taboo that prevents a proper healthy expression of grief." (W. Dewi Rees, "Bereavement and Illness," Journal of Thanatology 2 (Summer-Fall 1972): 814-19.)

The importance of crying is emphasized in literature written to help people resolve their grief. In their book About Mourning: Support and Guidance for the Bereaved, Savine Weizman and Phyllis Kamm explain that mourning is a gradual, natural process with many phases: shock, abandonment, denial, disbelief, withdrawal, guilt, resentment, anger, hostility, sadness, despair, self-pity, and integration. Eventual healing and recovery will take place if the process of mourning is completed. "Important components of the [mourning] process is crying, talking, sharing, and having permission from yourself and others to engage in these releases," they write.

Weizman and Kamm emphasize the necessity of sharing feelings, words, and tears with a relative, friend, clergyman, therapist, support group, or someone who has had a similar experience. (Savine G. Weizman and Phyllis Kamm, About Mourning: Support and Guidance for the Bereaved (New York: Human Sciences Press, Inc., 1985), 37-111.)

In their pamphlet "When Your Mate Dies" Weizman and Kamm write: You may feel very alone, abandoned and as if no one understands. You may feel constantly on the verge of tears. One young widow related, "I cried every day for a year."

Most important of all, don't be afraid to cry, don't be afraid to feel your pain and express your grief. Until you feel the gamut of your hurt, anger, hostility, and sadness, you will not be able to move forward to acceptance and live a full life. ...But happiness and sadness can coexist and you will find there is more to life than tears. (Savine G. Weizman and Phyllis Kamm, When Your Mate Dies, self-published pamphlet, 1977.)

Crying appears to be an essential part of the overall grieving process, which may take years to complete.

Learning to Release Tears

Some subjects in our adult crying behavior study expressed concern over the fact that while they could cry for a variety of what they considered unimportant reasons, they did not shed tears over major events such as death and serious illness. One subject wanted to know "why I cry over impersonal things and don't cry over personal things." Another subject wrote that she "found it interesting that when crying is appropriate, such as my grandfather's funeral or serious illness, I don't cry. Makes me wonder if I'm cold, but I do cry easily for sentimental reasons or thoughts, or if someone close to me cries or when watching TV." She surmised, "I must need this to release pent-up emotions."

Several persons in the behavior study expressed concern that they seemed to have lost their ability to cry. One subject wrote, "I'd give anything if I still could cry. It helped me feel I could go on and overcome the problem." Another wrote, "Wish I could cry, but it has been ingrained in my mind that crying is not an answer to anything; so I am no longer able to cry over nonmajor events." Some women who feel that they need a good cry to relieve stress but can't get the tears started, seek out sad movies. For years, Wuthering Heights was one of the classic tearjerkers. Terms of Endearment heads the list of recent movies that elicit tears, according to a preliminary survey we conducted for a study to determine which movies make men and women cry.

Being able to produce tears at will is a skill many actors and actresses develop as part of their theatrical training. While some actors use menthol crystals (or some type of eye irritant) to stimulate tears, and others substitute drops of glycerin for tear drops (especially in movie retakes), many actors prefer to trigger their theatrical tears with real emotion.

Kate Fuglei, an actress from the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, described in a phone interview how she brought forth her theatrical tears:

Ideally, I would like to always be able to cry real tears during a performance. Sometimes the tears come easily. On nights when I'm really into it, really connected with the character, the tears just come. Recently, I played a fourteen-year-old who was about to have an abortion. Most nights I felt I was the character and could believe that I was in the situation, so during the sad, wrenching scenes I cried real tears.

Other times I'm just not into it. Things have been rushed before the performance, the car wouldn't start, or I don't feel well, or something personal is bothering me. I'm not living the character. During times such as these I use emotional recall to generate tears. Usually two instances in my childhood or one incident I experienced as an adult help me cry. I think of specific details--how someone's face looked, something in the room, anything that brings back strong emotion that went along with the episodes. (Kate Fuglei, telephone interviews, Fall 1983.)

Actors and actresses learn to use such emotional memory--a technique developed by Constantin Stanislavski--to elicit tears as part of their theatrical training. Each one must search for unhappy events in their lives that will trigger tears. Although just thinking of sad events may bring tears occasionally, it fails to consistently release tears.

In her book, Respect for Acting, Uta Hagen gives precise instructions for the technique described by the Guthrie actress to induce weeping on stage. She advises actors to find their own "release object" connected in some way to the sad event they are focusing on. These seemingly insignificant objects-a ring on a finger, a painting on the wall, the smell of freshly brewed tea, the sound of raindrops hitting a tin roof- are more effective at triggering tears than dwelling on the essence of the painful event. Hagen herself used this technique for years without understanding why it worked. She later learned that the release objects may have been unconsciously perceived and thus bypass the conscious voice that tells us "Don't lose control." (Uta Hagen, Respect for Acting (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 46-49.) Regardless of the reasons, this technique is used successfully by many actors.

To teach their clients to release tears, some grief counselors recommend deliberately recalling a memory by going to a specific place or finding something that belonged to the person that died. Certain music or artwork done by the deceased works in some cases. If their clients feel choked up with tears but cannot let themselves cry, some counselors suggest they pant rapidly. Supposedly, the abrupt breaths help make crying possible for some persons. (William H. Schatz, Healing A Father's Grief (Redmond Wash: Medic Publishing Company, 1984), 13-14. Gay Luce, Your Second Life: Vitality and Growth in the Middle and Later Years (New York: Delacorte Press, 1978), 71.)

For those who cannot learn to cry by drawing on their emotional memory, a few simple suggestions for releasing tears offered by a Los Angeles psychologist may help. Anthony Tinn suggests that persons may be able to reclaim their ability to cry by (I) actively challenging the old cliches about why one should not cry, (2) expressing feelings associated with the need to cry, and (3) being with someone who is comfortable with crying when crying is appropriate. (Anthony Tinn, "Everyday Coping Skills," Northwest Orient (Spring 1981): 16.)

Ingeborg Day interviewed a cross-section of the population for the article "What Makes You Cry?" in Ms magazine. One woman's mother passed on her method of dealing with life's blows: Peel and mince onions to start the tears and don't stop until you feel better. (Ingeborg Day, "What Makes You Cry?" Ms (June 1980), 46-55.) Perhaps her irritant tears help start her emotional tears flowing.

I feel that many persons lose the ability to cry emotional tears because of social conditioning. When children (particularly boys) are told crying is childish, or when others react negatively to our tears as we grow older, we try to hold back our tears. However, it is difficult to feel very sad or hurt without crying, and we soon learn that it is easier not to cry if we do not allow ourselves to feel strongly in the first place. If we suppress the emotions that cause our tears, we avoid the feelings of embarrassment or loss of control or vulnerability that can accompany a weeping outburst.

As I mentioned earlier, individuals who learn to hide their emotions from others may eventually hide them so well that they no longer know what or how they feel. (Obviously, there are some who seem to do well without crying and do not want to change.) For others, perhaps the only way to reverse the problem and regain the ability to express emotions is to work with a psychologist or other health professional who will help them to experience, own, and express their feelings. When we reclaim emotional expression, begin to know ourselves better, and thus become more fully human, we may also be able to once again utilize one of the few physiological functions that separates humans from other animals - emotional weeping.


When I speak to various groups about crying, I always emphasize that I do not necessarily recommend that people try to cry, but rather that they allow themselves to cry when they feel like crying. I think many people need to learn that it is OK to cry and that they do not have to be strong all the time.

One man told his therapist that he was afraid to let go and cry because he was afraid he would never stop. He and many others need to learn that they will not have a nervous breakdown if they just totally let go and cry and sob; they can give themselves permission to feel and express their feelings as long as they do not hurt others.

We all have the right to be human, to feel, to cry. There is no need to deprive ourselves of the natural healthy release of emotional tears. The next time you feel tears coming and struggle to hold them back, think of Mr. Bumbles' lines from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist: "It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper. So cry away!"

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