I’m Crying About This — Again?

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

We all cry for lots of different reasons. If you count “crying” as simply tears welling out of your eyes and streaming down your cheeks, then something as simple as dicing an onion can really get you going. Or how about that last comedy you watched that had you laughing so hard you had to wipe away tears with the back of your hand.

But then there are tears of sadness. Whether your lover has just told you it’s time to move on, or you’re in the throes of grief following the death of a loved one, crying can burst out like an uncontrolled gusher.

Are all of these tears the same? An established and growing body of research says they are not. Chemically, tears differ based on the emotions (or lack thereof) that are causing them. “Emotional tears, for instance, have been found to contain protein-based hormones including the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress,” according to a report in Smithsonian Magazine.

Clearly, there’s a lot more to crying and the resultant tears than you might think. From a psychological perspective, crying can be a symptom. The question to be answered, though, is — a symptom of what? Writing for Oprah Daily, Aileen Weintraub recalls a moment in a grocery store chatting with a pregnant woman who appeared to be minutes away from giving birth. The interaction caused Weintraub to remember her own pregnancy, which resulted in a mandatory five months of bedrest. Suddenly, in the parking lot leaving the store, she found herself barely able to fight back tears. What was going on? “Why couldn’t I just feel joy for this woman?” she writes. “And why, after all these years, did I feel so helpless and terrified when I recalled my own difficult pregnancy? Why did it still have so much power over me? It turns out that my meltdown at the grocery store was a sign of progress.”

Tears can be a sign that you are actually healing from your trauma, not that you are stuck in the past. In fact, once you’ve had a particular memory trigger a physical response, and then recovered, you are in the position of using that experience the next time you’re triggered. You can say to yourself: This is okay, yes I’m reacting but I’ve been here before — this feeling is going to go away. “Being aware of the brain-body connection and acknowledging that your racing heart and knotted stomach are just physical manifestations of a bad memory,” Weintraub writes, “can dial down your anxiety and help the symptoms abate much more quickly.” Perhaps even more important, let yourself experience the feelings — that is far better than suppressing them. Too often, suppressing feelings leads a person to turn to alcohol or medication to help with the suppression, which prevents healing.

An even healthier step in the healing process than simply crying is allowing yourself to cry in the presence of a trusted friend or loved one. This in itself can relieve stress and is a vital step in recognizing the reality of your situation — and allowing another to witness that reality. Also, opening yourself up and being vulnerable virtually ensures a deeper bond between the two of you. Speaking to this point, Weintraub says, “Maintaining strong connections has also been proven to help us navigate and, ultimately, move through difficult experiences. Next time you have a reaction to a past wound, don’t isolate yourself. Instead, call a friend, let them know you need support, and unleash the cascade of tears.”