Why we cry, and why we often won't
The first few times that I encountered a patient apologizing for crying during a therapy session, I wondered why they felt an apology was warranted. Was I ineffective at fostering a safe space for them to explore their emotions? Did they not feel comfortable trusting me? Were they embarrassed? Did they think they were making me uncomfortable? When I discussed my observations with colleagues, it became clear that people often apologize for crying, in any setting, including in therapy.
There are several mechanisms associated with crying, including biological, psychological, and social. Research has found that shedding emotional tears releases oxytocin and endorphins, neurochemicals associated with reducing pain and promoting a sense of well-being. Furthermore, research indicates that crying may have a self-soothing effect on people by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps people relax. Socially, crying has been found to promote attachment behavior, as it rallies support from the people around us. Interestingly, crying kills bacteria and keeps the eyes clean, as tears contain a fluid called lysozyme which has powerful antimicrobial properties. When we hold ourselves back from crying, we are preventing these systems from performing their important functions.
If crying serves so many important functions, then why do we tend to refrain from crying, and apologize when we are unsuccessful at holding back? For one, our society discourages displaying vulnerability. Many fear that they will be viewed by others as weak. Furthermore, we may tell ourselves that our emotions are too painful to tolerate. We may also fear making others uncomfortable by our crying. We may even harbor a misconception that if we avoid showing our emotions, or avoid confronting our pain, that our discomfort will miraculously disappear. In fact, one of the core principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is that suffering is the outgrowth of the struggle against pain; the harder we try to avoid, push away, or distract ourselves from our pain, the more it seems to take a hold over our lives.
Given the important mechanisms associated with crying, it’s important that we allow ourselves to be in contact with our emotions. Of course, some contexts promote a more effective exploration of emotions than others. A conference room during a work meeting may not be the most supportive environment for one to get in contact with their feelings. Rather, it’s important to prioritize finding the time and space to be in touch with your emotions and to allow yourself to cry when you feel the urge to do so, whether that be during a therapy session, or while on the phone with a friend. After all, like sneezing and yawning, crying is a normal physiological experience that serves important functions.