When was the last time you had a good, solid cry? If you are a woman, it was probably fairly recently. If you are a man, it may have been quite some time ago. Women are reported to cry about five times as often as men. They are even more prone to tears during the months following childbirth, during the peak of their menstrual cycle and during menopause.
Research indicates that the tears we shed in response to either physical or emotional pain (the brain doesn’t seem to differentiate) are biochemically different from those we shed as a result of eye irritation, say from pollen, dust or smoke. They contain higher levels of the protein prolactin (associated with breast milk production) and the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ATCH) that tends to build up in the body during periods of stress. Crying serves to flush the body of this hormonal excess, helping to create the sense of calm that often follows a good cry. That women produce twice the levels of prolactin than men do may help explain their greater tendency to cry.
Crying often serves as a form of communication. Humans are unique in the animal world in this regard. For an infant, it is the only form of communication, signaling a state of distress to its caregivers. Crying, and the relief from distress it ideally produces, helps build a maternal bond between the infant and its mother. As adults, crying signals the need for help and support from those around us and continues to serve the bonding function at a different level.
The conventional wisdom that crying is good for you has recently been coming under greater scrutiny. Some researchers suggest that because most people recall crying as a past experience, perhaps they tend to emphasize the positive aspects of it while diminishing the negative. Be that as it may, crying does serve to release emotional pain that is otherwise held in the body as muscular tension. Unrelieved, this chronic tension can lead to a variety of serious psychosomatic disorders such as hypertension, ulcers, neck and backache, colitis and heart disease, and, indirectly, to drug or alcohol abuse.
It is safe to say that some people cry too much and some too little. Men typically resist the urge to cry, allowing themselves to release only under the most egregious circumstances, such as the death of a loved one. This phenomenon is primarily cultural in origin. Crying can certainly make one appear weak or vulnerable, which, of course, is usually an accurate description of how we are feeling when we’re sad. Guys, if you won’t allow yourself to cry when someone is around, then go off somewhere by yourself and do it. The important thing is to achieve the release that comes from allowing expression of the pain or sadness. Perhaps you can imagine talking to a loved one or trusted friend about it afterward, as a step in the right direction toward opening up to your vulnerability.
What about folks who cry too much? The tip-off to knowing if you might be crying too much can be found in the reason why you cry. Because crying is a release and usually leads to a temporary feeling of calm, people can become addicted to it. Many people who are lonely, for example, or feel trapped in a loveless relationship can cry themselves to sleep nightly. While the release feels good, crying only serves as a distraction or temporary respite from the underlying pain. If underlying issue that is causing the sadness is not addressed directly, you could be in danger of falling into a depression or other debilitating psychological state. Consider enlisting the help of a therapist, clergyman or support group so that the need for chronic tears can be addressed and alleviated.
While crying is most often associated with sadness, it is also true that sometimes people cry for joy, such as when attending a wedding or being surprised by a party being given in their honor. Some researchers have suggested that any situation in which we have no control can lead to tears. I tend to think that witnessing and experiencing something precious and beautiful is sufficient to move one to tears. Often certain pieces of music or other forms of art can evoke tears. The 1963 low budget Sidney Poitier classic Lilies of the Field always makes me cry. I’m simply touched by the generosity of spirit that this tough German nun brings out of a restless Baptist contractor. (The movie, by the way, was shot on location in only fourteen days and Sidney Poitier agreed to defer his salary for a portion of the profits in order to get it made. His work in the picture brought him the Academy Award for Best Actor. It was also the first major part played by a black actor where the role was not driven by the color of his skin.)
No discussion about crying would be complete without some consideration of the subject of onions. How can something that smells so good when fried be such an irritant when sliced? The answer is quite complicated.
When you slice open an onion, you break open a number of onion cells. Some of these cells have enzymes inside that escape when the cell is sliced. These enzymes rapidly decompose some of the other substances that have escaped from the sliced cells. Some of these substances, amino acid sulfoxides, form sulfenic acids which then quickly rearrange themselves into a volatile gas. As the gas reaches your eyes, it reacts with the water that keeps them lubricated. This changes the chemical’s form yet again, to produce, among other things, a mild sulfuric acid which irritates the eyes. The sensitive nerve endings in your eyes pick this up and your brain reacts by telling your tear ducts to produce more water to dilute the acid and protect your eyes.
You can avoid the worst of these fumes by holding your head as far back from the onion as you can while slicing it or by slicing it under running water. As for the rest of your tears, everyone needs to develop their own way of handling them.