All animals well up with tears to clean or remove irritants from their eyes, but we are the only species who cry because of emotional upset. Professor William Frey, professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Minnesota and a tear expert, believes that the ultimate aim of crying is to reduce stress. “Stress triggers crying and our chemical balance returns. People do feel less sad and less angry after crying. It may be because they are literally crying it out of them.” Crying may also release natural painkillers known as endorphins that have a calming effect, according to Professor Frey. Eight five per cent of women and 73 per cent of men report feeling better and more relieved after a good cry. And a good cry is also four times more common for women than for men. This could be because we need to get rid of higher amounts of prolactin from our systems, the hormone that promotes the secretion of milk, and controls fluid balance and is found in tears.
Frey’s studies into crying found that the most common reason is sadness followed by happiness, anger, sympathy, anxiety and fear. ”When you have a very strong emotion that exceeds a certain threshold it triggers this emotional crying response in humans regardless of the emotion,” he explains. So think of it as your safety valve. It’s a biological imperative, not a cause for shame. Having said that, a few sneaky strategies to do it with dignity wouldn’t go amiss.
The first day at school cry
You feel immense pride and a little loss when your little one waves goodbye at the gates. Your child is growing up and is someone else’s responsibility now, at least until 3pm. You are still the most important person in their life, but the first steps to independence have been taken.
How to handle it: “There is no harm in being emotional at such an important transitional stage in your life, but it is probably best not to let your child see you cry,” says Gladeana McMahon, co-director of the Centre for Stress Management. “Focus on your child’s own need for comfort at such a scary but exciting time. Bite your lip and hold back the flood until your child has gone into the classroom and you are back in the car.”
The ouch cry
Pain – sudden, unexpected jolts of pain are the most common triggers. Someone bumps into you, and his or her elbow catches the bridge of your nose. Your crying seems disproportionate to the pain. Dr Louise Selby, a GP based in Surrey, explains why pain can make you cry. “The how is well known but the why is still a bit of a mystery,” she says. “Basically, pain tears are a reflex; a parasympathetic nervous response which stimulates the lachrymal gland to produce tears.”
How to handle it: Dab your eyes because you can’t stop a reflex action.
The sympathy cry
A friend suffers bereavement or a crisis and is in bits in your living room. The chances are that you will shed tears of sympathy. Several reports have shown that people use the same circuits in the brain to read emotions in other people, and to feel emotions themselves. In other words, reading pain or sorrow in someone’s else face will directly affect the way you are feeling. Hence the inevitable need for a hanky during weepy movies. Researchers at Bowling Green State University in Ohio found that women were able to feel joy and sorrow simply by imagining the physical act of crying.
How to handle it: What do you do when you can’t stop yourself crying along with a pal? “Go with the flow,” says McMahon. “Sympathy tears show powerful support and togetherness. Your friend will appreciate that you care. It is a way of showing empathy. Be careful however. If you take it too far, your friend can start to feel responsible for you when they are going through a crisis”
The orgasm cry
Remember when Bree in Desperate Housewives announces that Rex cries every time he ejaculates? The orgasm cry can happen for both men and women and is probably, the release of pent up emotions. Tom Lutz, the author of Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, says: “Weeping often occurs at precisely those times when we are least able to verbalise complex, overwhelming emotions and least able to fully articulate our feelings.”
How to handle it: So if he cries when he climaxes, take it as a compliment. It does not mean that your lover is unhappy. He just can’t tell you what he is feeling in any other way.
The argument cry
Whether it’s at home or at work, every point you make is being shot down. Nothing you say is making any difference and a combination of a sense of profound injustice and rage conspire to turn on the waterworks.
How to handle it: Dr Elaine Duncan, a health psychologist at Glasgow Caledonian University, recommends using a distraction technique, such as thinking about a loved one or, if appropriate, removing yourself from the situation until the strong emotions have passed, while avoiding eye, ear and voice contact.
In a work situation anticipation and preparation are key, says Dr Duncan. ‘If you have a difficult meeting ahead, rehearse different scenarios and how you might handle them. Try to maintain your composure by concentrating on your breathing. Losing your temper can trigger tears, so stay calm even when provoked.’
Psychologist Dr Debra Bekerian suggests that you remove yourself politely, simply by saying that you need a quick break, and return composed. Alternatively you could try to laugh it off if the circumstances are right but only you will know that. “It is important to evaluate the situation properly,” says Dr Bekerian. “Don’t overestimate the problem either. You might think your authority has been undermined but maybe all that has happened is that you cried.
The ‘all getting too much’ cry
Overwhelmed by chores, work, life, cashflow problems, with no end in sight.
How to handle it: Doing exercise, meeting a friend for coffee will all help says Dr Elaine Duncan, a health psychologist. “Meditation and yoga are ways to manage emotional plateaus,” she says. ‘If you are prone to crying a lot, ask yourself if there is some underlying issue in your life that need tackling.”
The happy cry
Gwyneth Paltrow and Halle Berry both wept tears of joy when they won Oscars. The rest of us save our tears of joy for marriage proposals, surprise parties and pride in little Johnny’s first stage appearance as the be-teatowelled shepherd.
How to handle it: “Tears of joy are wonderful expressions of deep emotion and should not be held back,” says McMahon. Sobbing too hard for too long, a la Gwyneth, should probably be avoided however because it can make you look slightly ridiculous. “It is all about context. We do like to see people show emotion but we don’t like it when it goes into schmaltz,” says McMahon. “Weeping over trifles is perceived as emotional overindulgence.
The sadness cry
You’ve split up with a partner or a maybe even lost someone close to you and you find yourself welling up in church, on the bus, in the supermarket where you can do bugger all about it.
How to handle it: In this situation, distraction can get you out of an immediate bind. Playing with a pen or focusing very hard on a tube map can give you a bit of breathing space. Count how many people have red hair in the bus or do mental arithmetic,” says Gladeana McMahon. If all else fails, invest in a pair of large dark sunglasses, which can hide the damage for the short term.
“Temporary solutions are like taking an aspirin for a toothache if you do not resolve it. If it is sadness then the best thing to do is accept it is a journey,” adds Duncan.