What You Need Right Now Is a Good Cry
Plus, how to muster up the tears if you’re a little too used to bottling up emotions
Back in July, Brooklyn-based novelist Andrea Bartz started to notice hives on her back and hip.
She sought out medical help through telehealth appointments, but nothing seemed to alleviate the ailment.
“I was getting more and more stressed out [about the hives], even though I knew stress might be contributing to the hives, so it was a vicious cycle,” she says. Doctors she spoke with recommended prednisone, a common treatment for allergic reactions, but Bartz was concerned about the side effects of the corticosteroid.
Feeling frustrated, Bartz turned to Facebook to ask friends for advice. She tried coal tar soap, sunlight therapy, dandruff shampoo, and body wash along with other over-the-counter remedies. In early August, she felt an overwhelming need to cry, but couldn’t seem to muster up any tears. Shortly thereafter, Bartz made another telehealth appointment, this time with an intuitive healer who helped her connect the symptoms to a past trauma.
“Hearing that and being allowed to acknowledge these repressed emotions, I cried a lot while answering her questions, and she led me through a guided meditation, which I cried through, too,” Bartz shares. “I had another good cry that night in the shower, and I woke up the next day to zero hives. They haven’t come back since. It was wild.”
Strange as it may seem, the physical and psychological benefits of crying are vast. It can help calm your parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases your heart rate and increases digestion, creating a self-soothing effect. According to the Association for Psychological Science, crying can also help restore our emotional equilibrium by “regulating positive emotion.”
“Some research shows that crying can actually help us feel better, and may even relieve pain.”
“Crying can be an adaptive behavior we engage in to express emotion. Crying on occasion can have many positive functions — it helps us to relieve feelings of sadness or distress; it can also function as a means of expressing intense joy, happiness, or relief,” says Donna B. Pincus, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University.
It’s not just about expressing emotions, though: There may be real physiological power in the process of crying, Pincus says: “Some research shows that crying can actually help us feel better, and may even relieve pain, with some research showing that we release oxytocin and endorphins when we cry, which can be both pain-relieving and mood-enhancing.”
Crying can also provide the cathartic feeling of a fresh start, says Melissa Tierney, an intuitive healer in Chicago. “Crying is a clearing, and if we clear the emotions, then we can see clearly what action we need to take. It’s incredibly healing, not only on a biological level, but it’s a release of energy that is trapped within the ethereal body, the spiritual body, and your eternal soul.”
How to bring on a cry
When tears arise unexpectedly, try to let yourself embrace them, says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a Connecticut-based licensed professional counselor and integrative mental health expert. “Crying is a signal to take a moment and process or deal with stressors, uncomfortable emotions, or body sensations,” she explains. “Taking the time to cry and work through these uncomfortable feelings is not only a positive action that doesn’t let emotions and stressors pile up, it can also be quite healing.”
That said, plenty of people, like Bartz, are having a hard time getting the tears to flow on their own. If you’re in this camp, experts recommend watching a movie or show that moves you (pretty much any Pixar movie or episode of This Is Us will do); replaying sad memories or conjuring hypothetical ones; or even taking a moment to process current events by writing or talking about your feelings. Perhaps reflecting on how the current crises have impacted people in your circles will spark an empathetic nerve.
“It’s incredibly healing, not only on a biological level, but it’s a release of energy that is trapped within the ethereal body, the spiritual body, and your eternal soul.”
“Psychically, we are connected to everyone, so if we open ourselves to that collective consciousness, we can tap into the weeping for the world,” Tierney says.
Surprisingly, yoga can invite the tears to flow — in particular, certain hip-opening positions, such as child’s pose (with knees apart) or pigeon pose, can trigger an emotional response, some experts say. As Rachel Scott, an author and yoga education expert, explains, “Our body holds emotional memory.”
“Our culture, upbringing, conditioning, and beliefs also impact how we allow ourselves to move and feel. When we practice holding hip openers, we are accessing and releasing muscles in the pelvis that play a role in ‘holding’ our personalities and that may have not been felt or brought into consciousness in quite some time,” explains Scott. “Also, these poses are usually quieter poses that are held for a longer time, which invites us into a deeper presence and felt state ourselves. When we show up to ourselves in this way, we often create space to discover feelings that we may have been avoiding.”
When crying just isn’t for you
There are other ways to achieve a similarly cathartic release. Screaming into a pillow, laughing, singing, and having sex can provide some of the same mental and physical benefits of crying, says Alexis Hammond, MD, a psychiatrist in Baltimore. For example, oxytocin — the same endorphin released when crying — also occurs in orgasm (thus its nickname as the “love hormone”) and laughter. Bonus points for laughing with friends, as “social laughter” can activate the release of endorphins, according to a 2012 study.
While it may be easy (in the short-term) to put your stress on the back burner, it’s worth it in the long run to address it. If your body doesn’t find a release emotionally, the pain and trauma can begin to present itself physically and even dermatologically, similar to Bartz’s experience with hives this summer.
“There’s a connection between the mind and body,” says Hammond. “There’s a whole specialty of psychiatry in dermatology and we see patients can have psychiatric symptoms that present themselves as dermatological symptoms, such as hives and itching. In those types of situations, physical symptoms can be improved through psychotherapy, meditation, and acupuncture, there are physical symptoms that can improve through these holistic means.”
“Crying is a signal to take a moment and process or deal with stressors, uncomfortable emotions, or body sensations.”
Beyond the tears
In Bartz’s experience, it was worth it to keep trying until she found the right way to process things: “I think of myself as someone with a number of pretty good coping mechanisms — I was exercising every day, doing yoga and guided meditations before bed,” she says. “I was doing all the things ‘they’ say to do, and it didn’t fix it because I wasn’t facing the root cause and releasing it. Yoga only goes so far.”
And while crying can be incredibly healing, it’s of course no replacement for mental health care. “We need to normalize crying and not think of it as a weakness. It’s a normal part of human life and it’s a need that we have,” says Hammond. “We have to be okay with not being okay. But if you’re not okay for a while and it’s getting in your way of functioning at work or school or interacting with other people, then it may be time to ask for help and not be afraid to do that.”
If you feel a Big Cry bubbling up, but you need help coaxing it out, Hammond suggests developing a concrete plan for a healthy crying session with a specific start time and end time so as not to become consumed by negative emotions.
“When you don’t have a plan, [crying] can make your mood worse and you can go into a depression,” she says. “I also would not recommend that anyone with an untreated mood disorder try forcing themselves to cry, as it can be more difficult to keep reigned in and the consequences of having it spiral are more serious. This is only in the setting of needing an outlet due to some particular stressor, or feeling overwhelmed.”
It’s important to have an exit plan as well. “Exit strategies could include playing an upbeat happy song after a sad one, or putting on a comedy after watching a sad movie, as well as letting someone you trust know your plans so they can call you at a certain time, or plan to meet up with you for a fun activity,” says Hammond.
Whichever tactic you use, remember that crying is a deeply personal process. Just as there’s no one right way to grieve, there’s no one way to cry. The important thing is to find the best way to care for yourself.
“In a world in distress and uncertainty, a silver lining right now is that people of all ages are working on improving their physical and mental health,” says Capanna-Hodge. “Working on being mindful in the moment and connected to one’s thoughts and body sensations is the first step in taking control of your mental health. When we focus on the moment and work on calming our mind and nervous system, we are able to deal with stressors and life changes more fluidly.”