Forget about putting on a brave face – it turns out it’s healthier to embrace your emotions and reach for the tissues. Shedding a tear is a normal, biological behaviour, but not everyone finds it easy to do. “People often see crying as a sign of weakness, but it’s actually a sign of strength because it shows you’re able to tolerate your emotions by letting them go,” says Dr Judy Hyde.
In most cases, crying happens for one of three reasons:
- to clear out harmful irritants
- prevent dryness
- in response to strong emotions like joy or sadness
But whatever your reason for crying, Dr Hyde says you should embrace tears as each scenario offers a specific health benefit. “It also sends out a signal to people close to you that you’re in distress and in need of comfort.”. So, while it might be tempting to put on a brave face, here are five reasons why it’s healthier to have a good cry.
1. It cleans and protects your eyes
“Starting with their most basic function, tears are produced to cleanse and protect your eyes from irritants. Basal tears – which are in our eyes all the time – provide lubrication by coating the surface of your eyes and eyelids with nutrient-rich fluid, which nourishes the cells. A severe lack of these tears can lead to a chronic condition, referred to as dry eye syndrome, and an inability to secrete these tears can cause inflammation and even damage to the eye’s surface. The second type of tears – reflex tears – shield your eyes from irritants. So, when you chop an onion, a chemical is released that reacts with the eye’s surface to create sulphuric acid. To overcome this, your tear glands produce reflex tears to help wash the irritant away.
2. It boosts your mood
Have you ever wondered why crying when you’re sad makes you feel better? “Crying is an emotional drain-off system,” Dr Hyde explains. “It helps you cope better with what’s going on rather than getting caught up in the emotion.” Emotional tears also contain the neurotoxin manganese which, at high levels, can cause anxiety, nervousness, irritability, fatigue, aggression and even emotional disturbances. So it’s thought the act of crying may actually improve how you’re feeling by releasing these toxins, which can then leave you feeling relieved and relaxed.
3. It reduces stress levels
When you cry, it can indicate that you’re suffering from a great deal of stress. Fortunately, your tears can offer relief by washing away certain chemicals that build up during stressful times, replacing them with feelings of joy. Two major culprits for this increase in stress are the hormones cortisol and prolactin. The higher your hormone levels, the more likely you’ll experience emotional crying. “But when you cry, it actually depletes these elevated levels by washing them out of your system,” Dr Hyde explains. “Along with that, though, your tears release soothing endorphins, which help you to feel better, too.” And, as a result, you end up feeling a whole lot better because your mood lifts, you feel more relaxed, and all the built-up hormones from muscle tension gets washed out.
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4. It fights off bacteria
Forget about antibacterial soap and hand sanitisers: your body produces its very own germ-fighting agents, including those hidden in your tears. “While your whole body actually fights bacteria, your tear ducts produce special antibacterial and antiviral chemicals that get to work if you have an eye infection,” explains Dr Hyde. This powerful antimicrobial effect can be attributed to antibodies, oils and enzymes, including lysozyme, which studies show can eliminate 90-95% of all bacteria in as little as 5 to 10 minutes.
5. It lessens pain
Your emotional tears also produce a special type of endorphin and neurotransmitter called leucine enkephalin, which naturally acts as a painkiller within the brain during times of stress. While the exact way in which these pain-busting endorphins work is not well known, several studies suggest their presence alone interrupts the pathway for pain perception, which reduces not only the emotional impact of pain but also the physical impact. Dr Hyde says a history of emotional pain can build up internally if you don’t learn to let it go; this can affect your overall health, because it keeps coming back to haunt you until you’re able to move on. “What actually happens during the crying process is that the pain itself starts to get processed and thought about in a different way, so the actual act of crying can be a very helpful mechanism for that,” she says.
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