“Live to the point of tears,” said Camus.
That’s not so hard if you have treatment-resistant depression or any kind of chronic mood disorder. You learn to take Kleenex with you wherever you go. In the middle of a depressive episode, especially, it happens as naturally as sneezing or blowing your nose.
Two or three days of every month are tearful ones for me. Sometimes the crying is triggered by hormonal changes. Sometimes it is a release of stress. And sometimes I don’t really know why I’m crying. I just do.
Tears are healing in many ways.
They remove toxins from our body that build up from stress, like the endorphin leucine-enkephalin and prolactin, the hormone that causes aggression. And what’s really fascinating is that emotional tears — those formed in distress or grief — contain more toxic byproducts than tears of irritation (like onion peeling). Crying also lowers manganese levels, which triggers anxiety, nervousness, and aggression. In that way, tears elevate mood. In his article The Miracle of Tears, author Jerry Bergman writes, “Suppressing tears increases stress levels, and contributes to diseases aggravated by stress, such as high blood pressure, heart problems, and peptic ulcers.”
I like Benedict Carey’s reference to tears as “emotional perspiration” in his New York Times piece, The Muddled Track of All Those Tears. He writes, “They’re considered a release, a psychological tonic, and to many a glimpse of something deeper: the heart’s own sign language, emotional perspiration from the well of common humanity.”
But tears can also leave you feeling worse. Someone on my depression community, Project Beyond Blue, asked the other day: “Does anyone else experience a hangover from crying?”
The response was interesting. There were those that said once they start crying they can’t stop and feel emotionally exhausted afterward, so they try really hard not to start. Some wished they COULD cry, that meds have leveled out their emotions too much. One guy said that he can’t cry when he’s in the midst of a deep depression, so it’s a sign of recovery once he is able to shed tears.
There’s conflicting data, of course, just like there is with red wine, dark chocolate, and coffee.
Bergman catalogs the benefits in his piece mentioned above. However, the Journal of Research in Personality published a study in 2011 that found that shedding tears had no effect on mood for nearly two-thirds of women who kept daily emotion journals. Time magazine featured the study and included a quote by Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. “Crying is not nearly as beneficial as people think it is,” he said. “Only a minority of crying episodes were associated with mood improvement – against conventional wisdom.”
I tend to follow the wisdom of a fellow member of Project Beyond Blue who gives herself 20 minutes or a half-hour to cry. She sets a timer, and when the alarm sounds, she is done boo-hooing, and back to work. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but I think the wallowing is what depresses a person more than the tears.
Since I am a crier, and I generally feel better after a bawling session, I like to think of tears as numinous mist. Washington Irving writes: “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contribution and of unspeakable love.”
Tears are messengers … I like that.