The Healing Benefits of Crying

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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There once was a man who just couldn’t cry
He hadn’t cried for years and years
Napalmed babies and the movie Love Story
For instance could not produce tears. ~ Loudon Wainwright III

For two years in interfaith seminary my spiritual practice at my altar consisted of weeping. My emotional tears transformed hate that emanated from years of child abuse and neglect, the torment of complex trauma and the devastation of subsequent victimization, to acceptance. I cried over what I suffered and all I lost, until I could cry no more.

In the aftermath of prolonged emotional release my heart and my head aligned to assimilate the pain I endured so that the ‘gold in the shit’ (Jung)could be procured. From this place new rules of engagement, boundaries and standards were defined. Likewise a surge of creative energy unleashed dormant desires and potentials.

This extended descent into grief and sorrow affirmed for me the words of Jesus Christ,

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Indeed, Christ’s adage applies well to the ameliorative effect of weeping. Unlike basal tears or reflex tears, the bringing forth of emotional tears will facilitate healing. Biochemist Dr. William Frey proved this to be the case when he conducted studies that revealed that crying releases chemicals that the body produces in response to stress.

It is the suppression of emotional tears that causes the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) to ignite alterations in heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. Furthermore, the holding back of emotional tears leads to the containment in the body of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.(PubMed, J J Gross , B L Frederickson, R W Levenson)

Hence, the act of crying is a parasympathetic function. This means the regulatory and immune systems of the body are activated. Toxic stress hormones are flushed out of the body and relaxation is set in motion. Additionally, studies suggest that crying stimulates the production of oxytocin and endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer.

Along with the physical advantages of crying is the basic assumption that only by embracing and expressing our range of affective states that one can fully heal and grow. The synergetic relationship between the body and the mind exemplifies a fundamental premise of psychology rooted in the first law of thermodynamics. This law purports that energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. This means we cannot amputate those energetic parts of ourselves we despise or fear. We have to engage with and assimilate those aspects of ourselves for healing to occur. Crying facilitates this process of physical and mental integration.

Unfortunately the fundamental need and benefits of crying elude many. As I wrote in My Threshold for Emotional Pain was Dangerously High, like many complex trauma survivors I became oblivious to my emotional pain. This dangerous state of desensitization inhibited my natural ability to cry. As a trauma therapist I see this dilemma evidenced in my client Lauren.

Coupled with the animal instinct to resist pain, Lauren was raised in a familial environment of emotional and physical violence in which expressing vulnerability was a death knoll. The humiliation of begging for safety in her childhood home morphed into a habituated stoicism in which she solely relied on her cerebral abilities to address difficulties.

The problem with this strategy is that her intellectual perseveration over what could not be emotionally accepted led to a state of chronic anxiety. To harken back to thermodynamics, the energy not given appropriate ample discharge through emotional tears converted to pervasive uncertainty and agitation.

Lauren’s survival mechanism became ingrained and maladaptive. She is conditioned to wall off her pain to the point of being gridlocked in a static state of tension. As a result, when tears surface they are mechanically squelched.

Trusting one’s tears so as to be fully authentic and awakened to the truth has become a therapeutic goal for Lauren, and those like her who have learned to repress a reflexive emotional response to their suffering. Naturally this is an even greater struggle for men, given cultural prohibitions with embodying vulnerability. Additionally, there is evidence that suggests that male inhibitions with crying are not just rooted in societal expectation, but also due to hormonal differences. Apparently, men have significantly lower levels of prolactin (a hormone related to emotional tears) as compared to women.

Conversely, when repressed tears are unleashed an episode of abreactioncan catalyze intense, ceaseless crying. A cathartic release of repressed grief and horror can be spontaneously ignited or induced. To abreact is to essentially relive the traumatic experience that has been denied and repressed. Abreaction is not a resolution of a trauma but rather a bringing to consciousness buried material that can potentially be assimilated and reframed.

Titrating the emotional release of repressed emotion so that a balanced experience of cathartic weeping can occur is a challenging disciplined practice. For me personally, this practice was illuminated and encouraged when studying Islamic theology in seminary. My daily spiritual ritual involved meditating on Rumi poetry. The themes expressed paralleled my emotional and spiritual journey and spoke to my struggle with emotionally releasing what constricted me from opening up to the sacredness of each moment.

Rumi wrote,

“I went inside my heart
to see how it was.
Something there makes me hear
the whole world weeping.”

Behind all Rumi’s poetry is the essential theme of the longing and searching for union with the divine. His poetry was a reflection of his own inner consciousness. His words convey that earthly troubles dissipate as you allow Divinity to live through you, and to not define yourself by what is ‘out there’. His poetry encouraged me to go within and to feel worthy of my suffering. This simple act opened me up to the suffering in the world.

Indeed it is through our ability to cry and feel deeply that the portal of empathy is unlocked. Now more than ever we need to not just honor the tears we each need to shed, but as Rumi reminds us, to heed the weeping of the world. It is only then that we can humbly recognize all the individual and collective grief that we carry that is seeking to be healed.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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