As a life coach and nurse, I end up talking to people about some pretty heavy stuff sometimes. Occasionally, there are tears. Tears that are usually followed by the inevitable words: "I'm sorry for being so emotional" or "I'm sorry for crying."
Statements like these break my heart because they imply that the tears are somehow inappropriate, embarrassing, or unwarranted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having a big ol' mascara-running, gulping-like-a-fish ugly cry is actually really good for you.
But don't just take my word for it. There's some seriously cool science behind the benefits of an ugly cry.
The chemicals behind your tears
In the 1970s, Dr. William Frey, a professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Minnesota, analyzed the chemical makeup of reflexive tears (the kind you cry when you cut up an onion) versus emotional tears (the kind you cry while watching a sad movie). What he found was fascinating. While reflexive tears generally serve to protect the eyes by flushing and lubricating them, Frey postulated that the main function of emotional tears is to help the body recover from a stressful event by excreting excess hormones and other proteins.
When we experience stress, a substance called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is released into our bodies. If enough of ACTH builds up, it will eventually stimulate the release of cortisol, also known as "the stress hormone."
The neat thing that Dr. Frey found was that tears act to rid the body of these excess stress hormones. After a good cry, most people feel calmer and more resilient since their tears literally just drained stress hormones from their bodies. More tears = less ACTH = less stress. How cool is that?!
Crying can also protect you from getting sick. All tears contain lysozyme, a natural antibacterial substance that can destroy up to 95 percent of bacteria that come in contact with our eyes within 10 minutes. So when your eyes are welling up, they're also washing up.
Emotional tears also contain leucine-enkephalin, an endorphin responsible for reducing pain and improving mood. So crying literally making you feel better by releasing natural painkillers!
Your body's physical response
The actual physical act of crying can also make us feel better. Researchers have theorized that the rhythmic and repetitive movements and sounds that we make when we cry act as a self-soothing behaviors. Think of a mother calming a child: Mothers natural employ rocking, patting, cooing, or some other type of repetitive motion and sound to pacify a baby. The boo-hoo-pause-breathe-boo-hoo-pause-breathe pattern of crying mimics the way our mother's quieted us as infants. So go ahead and baby yourself a little.
Dutch researchers also found that people were more likely to offer some form of physical contact to someone who is crying than someone who is not. And physical contact such as a hug or even a simple touch on the hand has been shown to improve mood and relieve stress.
Emotional and spiritual benefits
Karla McLaren, empath and author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, advises that sadness, far from being a negative emotion, brings with it the gifts of release, fluidity, grounding, relaxation, and revitalization. Releasing sad tears is a natural way for the body, mind, and soul to process periods of loss or transition. Who hasn't cried at the end of crappy relationship, even when you know that it's for the best? When tears come up, McLaren says, they indicate that it's time to ask ourselves, "What is ready to be released? What is ready to be revitalized?"
Psychologists in the 1970s proposed that when an adult is moved to tears it "signifies recovery and adaptation rather than the continuation of distress or arousal." In other words, allowing yourself to cry moves you from "freakout" to "forget it" much faster. If you stifle them, it prevents you from moving on. So let 'em flow and let it go!
Crying is surrender, acceptance, and submission to the reality of what we are feeling. Nothing could be healthier than allowing your feelings, whatever they are, as they come up. So don't hold back. Let the tears flow and you will find yourself calmer, healthier, and more connected to yourself and to the people around you.