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The Truth About Tears
Compiled by Dr. Rae Baum, Ph.D.
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(Source: William H. Frey, II, Ph.D. with Muriel Langseth, CRYING: The Mystery of Tears. Copyright 1985, Winston Press, Inc. with permission of the author)


To Cry or Not to Cry

Sorrows which find no vent in tears may soon make other organs weep. Sir Henry Maudsley

Hans Selye spent most of his life studying the effects of stress on our bodies and how our systems struggle to adapt to our ever-changing environment. He emphasizes that all stress is not harmful and distinguishes between eustress-- positive stimulation and challenge that help us achieve--and distress--harmful, unpleasant stress, often the result of too many or too abrupt changes, boredom, frustration, or lack of purpose.(Hans Selye, The Stress of Life (revised edition, New York:McGraw Hill, 1976),74 and passim.)

Since individuals react differently to the same stimuli, we must take heed from the Seven Sages who advised, "Know thyself." One person's distress may be someone else's eustress. In his books Selye writes that we must not avoid stress but instead use it creatively to motivate personal achievement and at the same time maintain a sense of inner balance.

Stress and Disease

Until the last few decades, only Selye and a handful of researchers devoted their lives to studying stress and its relationship to disease. Stress and its ill-effects have always been a part of living, but not until recently has the subject become the focus of much scientific research-- perhaps because the world seems to be suffering from a "stress epidemic." In a list of the 200 top-selling drugs in the United States in 1984, Inderal (a drug prescribed for high blood pressure) was number one; Valium (a tranquilizer) was number four; Tagamet (an ulcer medication) was number seven.("2.1% Increase in Refills Pushes 1984 Rxs 1.7% Ahead of 1983," Pharmacy Times (April 1985),31.) In response to this stress epidemic, medicine has branched off into new areas of psychobiology which focus on ways to combat stress- related illness and psychoneuroimmunology, a field that explores how emotional states affect the body's defense systems.

No one knows whether life is really more stressful now or if we are just more aware of the world's uncertainties--nuclear threat, unemployment, abusive crimes--brought into our homes everyday on TV. I think people tend to imagine they live in a more stressful world than people in other time periods. Those early American pioneers who cleared the land, and faced harsh winters after poor harvests probably experienced as much stress as any modern suburbanite. And they had little medicine to treat illness in those days. People died of polio, smallpox, malaria, bacterial pneumonia, anthrax, and other diseases that are either prevented or easily treated today.

The subjects in our adult crying behavior study were asked, "Were you under any unusual emotional stress during the last month? Please describe." Over 40% of the male and female subjects responded that they were under unusual stress during the month they recorded their crying episodes. We thought this was strange, so we separated the responses of those who indicated unusual stress into two categories: major, when death, divorce, or major illness was involved; and minor, for other reasons such as concern over a college examination. Of the 43% who reported they were under unusual emotional stress, we found that only 16% attributed their stress to major events, while 84% who responded "yes" to the stress question gave relatively minor reasons for their stress. Evidently, it is not unusual for people to feel they are under "unusual" emotional stress, even when no major life situation is threatened. In view of how we identify stress, it is not surprising that one of today's fastest growing fields is stress management, a multi-million dollar-a-year business. Classes in biofeedback, transcendental meditation, yoga, autogenic training, muscle-relaxation, or other methods of stress-reduction are being taught at hospitals, medical centers, and many major corporations.

Humans release stress in a variety of ways such as fighting, yelling, laughing, talking rapidly, exercising, and crying. In his book The Vital Balance, Dr. Karl Menninger writes, "Weeping is perhaps the most human and most universal of all relief measures."(Karl Menninger, The Vital Balance (New York: The Viking Press, 1963), 138.) While emotional tears are only one of many release mechanisms for an overload of strong emotion and stress, they are easier to measure than other stress releasers. Although asking persons how they feel about various aspects of crying is subjective, the actual tears need no interpretation. They are either present or absent. Tears are one of the few aspects of involuntary emotional expression that provide something concrete to measure. Thus, the role which the release of tears plays in stress management lends itself to experimental verification.

Often when researchers want to learn about the purpose of a physiological process, they study those who do not have the ability to carry out the process. If emotional crying does make people feel better, as many suggest, then what happens to persons who cannot shed tears under stress?

In 1949 C. M. Riley described a group of children with two common features: They were unable to shed tears, and they had an abnormal reaction to mild anxiety. In these children emotional stress produced a number of symptoms described by Riley which included "transient extreme elevation of blood pressure, excessive sweating, salivation to the point of drooling, and the development of sharply demarcated erythematous blotches on the skin. ..." While more is now known about this syndrome, called familial dysautonomia, it is still not clear whether the inability of these children to secrete tears with their crying contributes to their extremely abnormal physical reactions to stress. (Conrad M. Riley et al., "Central Autonomic Dysfunction with Defective Lacrimation," Pediatrics 3 (1949): 468-78.) Science has known for years that excessive emotional stress causes the release of hormones and other substances into the blood altering our chemical balance. It is known that the pituitary gland releases beta-endorphin, an opiate-like compound, and the hormones ACTH and prolactin into the blood stream in response to stress. ...stress also releases the catecholamines--epinephrine (adrenaline) from the adrenal gland, and norepinephrine from the sympathetic nervous system. Several scientists, including psychiatrist Daniel Funkenstein, have gone a step further and suggested that the particular emotion involved may determine which catecholamine is discharged into the blood.(Daniel H. Funkenstein, "The Physiology of Fear and Anger," Scientific American 192 (May 1955): 74-80.)

It is thought by many that there is a relationship between the suppression of emotions, psychological health, and disease. It is also generally accepted that crying is one way to expressing and releasing emotion. "Tears are the safety valves of the heart when too much pressure is laid upon it," wrote Albert Richard Smith. If emotional tearing reduces the effects of stress, then we may increase our susceptibility to a variety of physical and psychological problems when we suppress our tears. Selye write, "We are just beginning to see that many common diseases are largely due to errors in our adaptive response to stress. ...Many nervous and emotional disturbances, high blood pressure, gastric and duodenal ulcers, certain types of sexual, allergic, cardiovascular, and renal derangements appear to be essentially diseases of adaptations."(Hans Selye, The Stress of Life, xvi-xvii.)  To continue...

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