Crying: How Much is Too Much?
Too many teardrops
For one heart to be crying
Too many teardrops
For one heart to carry on…
— Question Mark & the Mysterians, “96 Tears”
I was once in a relationship with a guy who had the misfortune of greeting my tears with a simple command (almost a threat, really): “Don’t start.” It worked exactly once. Feeling the brick wall of his words, I physically stopped what was welling up inside me. But as walls usually bring out my inner wrecking ball, the next time he said it was the last. Sometimes the need to cry is non-negotiable.
The scientific jury is still out on the question of whether or not humans are the only animals who cry as an emotional response. But whether or not we are exceptional in our weeping, I wager we win the prize for complicating the issue.
In my work teaching body awareness to individuals, I’ve found that, consciously or unconsciously, most people have an idea of what constitutes appropriate crying, and limit themselves accordingly. Some never shed a tear. Others, after a certain number of minutes, hours, or episodes of crying, decide that enough is enough and resort to what Dr. Ad Vingerhoets, clinical psychologist and crying expert, refers to as “emotion regulation strategies,” including suppressing tears, trying to look happy, and trying to breathe differently.
These strategies often show up in my sessions with clients. People will come to a point where it’s obvious they need to shed tears, whether out of sadness, frustration, pain, or feeling deeply moved. Some let it flow, but many (both men and women) put on the brakes – butts squeezed, jaws locked, throats contracted, breath held. When I ask them to notice these efforts, drop them, and let their bodies do what they want, their fears and beliefs about crying emerge:
It’s so stupid! It’s nothing! I shouldn’t cry about it.
I’ve already cried about this too much.
If I start crying, I’ll never stop.
If I cry, I’m weak.
If I cry, it means he got the best of me/she won.
Normal people don’t cry this much…Do they?
And there’s that tricky word, “normal”: the reassuring group so many people want to be part of.
In 2013, Dr. Vingerhoets and his colleagues launched an International Study on Adult Crying, collecting data from 2497 men and 3218 women in 37 countries. They found differences in crying frequencies based on gender (men in Australia, New Zealand and the USA cried the most, while those in Nigeria, Malaysia and Bulgaria cried the least; women cried most in Sweden, Chile and the USA, least in Nigeria, Ghana and Nepal), a country’s wealth (more tears were reported shed in affluent countries than poorer ones), and even average annual temperature (more crying was reported in colder climates than in warmer ones).
Yet these and other fascinating results still don’t provide a definitive answer to “how much crying is normal for an adult?” Dr. Vingerhoets himself concludes that “our emotions and the way they are expressed not only have a firm biological basis, but are also shaped by our culture. Emotional expressions, including crying, have no inherent meaning or explanation outside their direct social context.”
So we can’t really talk about a universal “normal” for crying; at best we can measure what is average or common among a very particular group of people. But what we can learn from research is that when you resist crying, you’re preventing a natural bodily function that has many benefits.
A tear for every occasion
Technically there are three kinds of lacrimation, or tear secretion:
Basal tears are a constant wetness that provides essential lubrication for the eye and fights bacteria. These “tears” flow continually over the surface and usually drain into the inner corners of the eyes.
When something irritates your eyes (smoke, dust, onions), emergency protection kicks in and your body produces more liquid to wash out the irritant. Whatever the usual drainage system can’t handle flows down your cheeks in the form of reflex tears, which may also appear with physical reflexes like yawning or vomiting.
The worry about “normal” comes with stress-induced or emotional tears, which as we know are brought on by triggers such as grief, physical pain, and joy. What’s interesting is that the chemical makeup of these tears is different from the other two kinds.
All tears contain an enzyme called lysozyme, which kills 90-95 % of all eye bacteria in under 10 minutes. That’s already pretty fantastic, but it gets better: compared to reflex tears, emotional tears contain 24% more of the protein-based hormones the body produces when under stress, according to Dr. William H. Frey, a biochemist who conducted ground-breaking studies about crying in the 1980s. This means that when you let yourself cry for emotional reasons, your tears are removing toxic substances from your body, in a way similar to sweat or urine. Suppressing tears can increase stress and contribute to stress-aggravated diseases, including high blood pressure, heart problems, and ulcers.
Pass the kleenex
The fact that emotional crying is affected not only by biology but also by cultural influences means that your beliefs about crying – your worry that you’re not normal – may lead to an automatic inhibition of a perfectly normal bodily reaction. When you hold your breath or squeeze your belly to avoid crying, you’re cutting off your body’s natural way of evacuating stress.
The next time you feel a wave of tears coming up, notice how you react. If you find you’re holding on somewhere, try to see what happens if you let go – and that includes letting go of all the things you may be saying to yourself about what’s happening. Crying is not a mental act. It’s a physical one. Your body decides if it needs it, and, if left to its own devices, will know how much is enough.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body, offering private sessions in body learning and pain management in Paris, France.
Ad Vingerhoets, Why Only Humans Weep: Unravelling the Mysteries of Tears (2013, Oxford University Press)
William H. Frey, Crying: The Mystery of Tears (1985, Winston Press)
Kehinde AJ, et al, “Tears Production: Implication for Health Enhancement” (Scientific Reports, Volume I, Issue 10, 2012)