Synopsis: Researchers are learning that tears shed for different reasons are chemically different. Emotional tears, for example, contain high levels of stress hormones, indicating they may be a way for the body to reduce stress. Experts discuss why it’s good for people to cry.
Host: Nancy Benson. Guests: Dr. William Frey, University of Minnesota and Research Director, Health Partners Neuroscience; Dr. Judith Orloff, psychiatrist and author, Emotional Freedom
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The Power of Tears
Nancy Benson: We’ve all done it–seen someone weeping and say to them, “Aw, don’t cry.” Of course we’re trying to help, but recent studies suggest suppressing emotional tears may do more harm than good. Dr. William Frey, a Biochemist at the University of Minnesota and Research Director of Health Partners Neuroscience in St. Paul, has found that emotional tears appear to help humans decrease stress.
Dr. William Frey: We know also from studying the chemistry of the tears that emotional tears are chemically different than other kinds of tears, such as the tears that keep your eyes moist during the day, and the tears that you cry in response to eye irritation by onions. Emotional tears have a higher concentration of protein, even though the volume of tears secreted in an emotional episode is usually significantly larger.
Benson: Frey says the proteins in emotional tears are the same ones that produce stress in the human body. But by crying emotional tears, he believes that people are effectively shedding those distressing hormones. And that’s no small thing.
Frey: Emotional stress can be very damaging to the body. If you have chronic unalleviated stress, it can damage your heart because it can cause constriction of the coronary artery and reduce blood flow to the heart muscle. It could increase your risk for, say, a heart attack. This is particularly true in individuals who already have some narrowing of the coronary artery or stenosis of the coronary artery that is key to delivering blood to the heart. Emotional stress and chronic unalleviated stress can also damage the brain. In particular, it can damage the areas involved in memory and even in motor function or movement. Both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease have associated with them elevation of cortisol– this stress hormone.
Benson: Dr. Judith Orloff agrees. She’s a psychiatrist and the author of the book Emotional Freedom. And she says all types of tears have health benefits. Even those caused by irritants help our bodies stay healthy.
Dr. Judith Orloff: When you have reflex tears, it allows your eyes to clear out noxious particles when irritated by smoke or exhaust or particles. And the second type, continuous tears, are produced regularly to keep our eyes lubricated. And these are really interesting because they contain a chemical called lysozyme which functions as an anti-bacterial and keeps our eyes from infection. And tears also travel to the nose through the tear duct to keep the nose moist and bacteria free.
Benson: As a psychiatrist, though, Orloff is most interested in the kind of tears that come at the end of a sad movie or in the airport when a soldier is reunited with her family. She’s most interested in emotional tears.
Orloff: It’s visible when a patient comes into me really upset, and they’re crying, and they let it out afterwards. There’s a sense of enormous relief. And can you imagine if that expression didn’t happen, you know, what happens to that emotion? It gets clogged up in the body and it causes stress. So, I have seen it. I have been in practice in psychiatry over twenty years and I advocate crying because I’ve seen how when people shut off their emotions and they’re not emotionally free and they keep everything inside that causes so many health problems and depression and held in anger and that doesn’t make for a healthy happy person.
Benson: Frey says the numbers support Orloff’s observations. People feel relieved after crying emotional tears.
Frey: Our studies have shown that eighty-five percent of women and seventy-three percent of men feel better after crying they feel less sad, less angry.
Benson: What concerns Frey, though, is how seldom men say they let themselves experience the emotional release of crying.
Frey: We also know that of course men and women cry very differently. Women cry approximately four times as often as men. On the average, women cry about five episodes or 5.3 episodes a month, whereas men cry on average about 1.4 times a month, a little over once a month.
Benson: He says there are several reasons why women cry more often than men.
Frey: Both boys and girls cry the same amount up to the age of about twelve. Now, the differences that develop between twelve and eighteen that lead to women crying as adults four times as often as men are partly biological and hormonal due to the difference in the levels of testosterone, higher in men than in women, and prolactin higher in women than in men. Also due to the anatomical differences in the tear glands between men and women. However, certainly in our society for many, many years crying has been discouraged traditionally really in boys and girls but more in men.
Benson: We can’t do much about physiology, but Orloff says those societal expectations need to be changed to allow men to feel more comfortable dealing with their emotions.
Orloff: I think that both men and women need to be open to crying because the women I work with often find it easier to cry. It comes more naturally, it’s more socially condoned. Whereas a lot of men feel like they’re not being manly if they cry, and so I’d like to challenge that stereotype.
Benson: We’re learning a lot more about tears, including the fact that humans are the only animal to shed emotional tears, and that the reasons we cry change over time. Sentimental, happy tears increase as we age. We gain empathy and cry at the success and sacrifice of others, as well as their suffering. As Orloff says, tears are part of what make us human.
Orloff: Human beings are given the gift of being able to cry, and it’s a healing gift. Crying promotes healing and stopping crying causes increased anxiety and depression.
Benson: So next time you feel yourself welling up with emotion or see someone else crying, don’t try to stop it. You can offer comfort, but let the tears flow. Afterwards, everything may seem a whole lot less stressful.
Our writer/producer this week is Evan Rook. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Nick Hofstra.
I’m Nancy Benson.