The joy of crying

Date

Linda McSweeny

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Photo: mitramirae

Home alone one day recently, I found myself sobbing. It was so intense that I could taste salt from the tears and my whole body was spent at the end of the session. Later, I dropped into bed and had the best sleep I'd had in months, probably because I was relieved. The emotions flowed, there was nobody to watch me and I just let go.

Induced by the anniversary of my father's death, I cried because I pined for his presence and counsel about life's upsets. In his absence, the tears sufficed, helping to get rid of pesky emotions and allowing me to face a new day.

Crying has long been a source of unease or embarrassment and is surrounded by social stigma. But attitudes appear to be changing. People worldwide are recognising that crying can be a good thing, whether it be a joyous tear at a wedding, a sob at a funeral or a cry to release pent-up angst.

In Japan, crying bars are gathering adherents. People of all ages and backgrounds pay money to walk into a room - with others - and watch a sad film or read a sad book to evoke tears.

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It's called the "crying boom", says Professor Ad Vingerhoets of the Netherlands' Tilburg University and author of Why Only Humans Weep: Unravelling the Mysteries of Tears.

"Instead of going to a karaoke bar after work to wind down, Japanese business people now watch sad films at crying bars," says Vingerhoets, who has been researching crying and emotions for 20 years. "Afterwards, they feel refreshed and emotionally cleansed. Some prefer to watch tear-jerkers in the company of others so that they can share their feelings afterwards."

However, most of the time, he adds, people tend to cry in the intimacy of their own homes, although crying in the presence of others can be more beneficial. "If they get understanding and comfort from others who are present, it's much more likely that people report feeling better," he says.

Women are known to cry more than men. Vingerhoets says there are many possible reasons for this, including the fact the male sex hormone testosterone may inhibit crying and women may get more exposure to emotional situations. Both genders cry mostly around loss, such as the death of a loved one or pet, or a relationship breakdown.

Some people find it difficult or have lost the capacity to cry - typically if they are severely depressed or traumatised. But letting tears flow can be an important call for help.

Crying frequently can also be a marker of depression, says Black Dog Institute clinical psychologist and University of NSW Professor Helen Christensen. "If you're crying a lot and it's associated with despondency and has become a frequent event, it can be an indicator you might be depressed."

While almost everyone has the capacity to cry, many of us try to regulate our behaviour in certain circumstances, she says. However, a good cry every now and then can be cathartic. While many of us do our best to avoid it, we should perhaps allow ourselves to cry when the urge arises.

"When we started a study [investigating how men handle stressful situations], I was asking people such as taxi drivers, 'Do you cry'? I got the response that having a good cry, particularly privately, was almost cathartic and it was almost like a physical body release.

"When people are alone in situations of complete angst," Christensen continues, "they tend to have this almost physiological, almost howl, crying. People do cry over sentimental things, but that is not the same as biological cathartic crying that you get in situations of extreme stress. The men - the taxi drivers - say they immediately felt better after that physiological release."