For chronic pain sufferers, frustration, exhaustion, medications, depression, anxiety and even the pain, itself, can cause tears. But crying can cause people, including friends, family and caregivers, to become impatient, especially with someone who is already suffering under the stigma of chronic pain.
However, studies show that it has some surprising health benefits, including decreasing pain and improving mood, which make it worth rethinking our prejudice against this uniquely human response.
Crying Restores Equilibrium
When you’re stressed, tired, mad or in pain, crying can help restore your body to a state of balance. The first is in the makeup of the tears, themselves.
Tears come in three types, reflexive (which cleans out irritants), continuous (which keeps eyes lubricated), and emotional. Research shows that emotional tears contain more stress hormones than the other types of tears. Crying is one way the body can shed these excess hormones and toxins, which are accumulated during stress.
Crying also relieves muscle tension. Typically when we experience a negative emotion, our muscles tighten. This is part of our fight-flight-freeze response, in which the body goes into self-preservation mode in preparation to survive a potentially harmful or deadly attack.
Rather like a progressive muscle relaxation session, in which muscles are deliberately tightened and then released to bring about a state of ease, crying softens tight muscles, cueing the body that the threat is gone and that it can return to its normal state.
Researchers have speculated that crying reduces pain, based on the chemicals present in emotional tears. In an early and often-cited study on crying by biochemist William Frey, tears were found to contain leucine-enkephalin, an endorphin that reduces pain and works to improve mood.
Endorphins interact with the brain’s opiate receptors, reducing our perception of pain, acting similar to drugs like codeine and morphine. These hormones also lead to a feeling of euphoria and the enhancement of the immune response.
Crying can also stave off future stress and pain. Rather than stuffing your feelings, which can lead to (or exacerbate) physical health issues like fatigue, high blood pressure and headaches, crying lets you stay healthy by releasing negative emotions. It also makes room for new, positive energy to fill us up.
Tears Kill Harmful Bacteria
Tears contain enzymes called lysozymes, which can kill up to 95 percent of all types of bacteria in less than 10 minutes.
Also found in mucus, saliva, semen and human milk, lysozymes destroy the bacteria’s protective coating by breaking down cell walls. A 2011 study published in the journal Food Microbiology found that tears have such strong antimicrobial capabilities they can protect against intentional anthrax contamination.
Tears also contain glucose, which nourishes the eyes and the eyelids, helping them remain healthy.
Crying Can Improve Your Mood
A study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion looked at the impact of sad movies on participants’ moods. After being shown a tearjerker of a film, the researchers asked participants to gauge their mood immediately, 20 minutes later and 90 minutes after that.
The non-criers’ moods didn’t change immediately after. And, interestingly, the criers actually felt worse. But within 20 minutes, the criers’ moods had returned to pre-movie levels, and after 90 minutes, the criers reported even more of an improvement in mood.
So the next time you feel like crying, whether from pain, stress or sadness, let it out. Reconsidering outdated notions about this powerful response may not only lead to better mood, they could also lead to better health.
And after you’re done crying, let yourself breathe. Read our article to learn how.