Feeling emotional during lockdown? You’re certainly not alone. Stylist explores why giving into a good old cry is so powerful.
Monday 23 March, 8.30pm: another moment in time to add to the list of days I’ll never forget. The one where Boris Johnson declared lockdown to the nation, and our new reality hit home – literally. Watching from the sofa, my thoughts raced between graphic coronavirus news stories from around the world and my worst fears for loved ones – and I could feel my throat tightening; a familiar lump forming. Then, seconds after the announcement, a message from my mum: “Are you OK? Want to FaceTime?” Petering on the edge of a guttural sob, I steadied myself and replied: “Yes!”
That was just one emotional wobble I’ve had over the past few weeks. We’re all having them. When I asked what kind of things were setting everyone off, my inbox and WhatsApp was inundated: “the Clap for Carers tribute”, “hearing about the 560,000 volunteers helping the NHS”, “seeing a neighbour get rushed to hospital”, “being made redundant”, “feeling helpless when video calling my parents”, “sending the message that our wedding was cancelled”, “a friend telling me over Zoom that she might have breast cancer”, “my eight-year-old child refusing to do schoolwork”, “people not being able to say goodbye, at the end, or attend funerals”.
But it’s not just the big things making us weep, right now anything is causing us to wobble: “listening to When I Grow Up from Matilda”, “my laptop freezing before a meeting”, “writing a shopping list and then deleting it by accident at the shop”, “my husband eating all the biscuits”.
In short: we’re all feeling anxious, overwhelmed, frightened – and the result is that most of us are breaking into tears at random intervals throughout the day. I’ve been thinking a lot about crying, and that surge of relief after tears are shed. That far from evoking self-pity, crying has actually helped me feel better. Talking with friends on Zoom and getting upset that we might not see each other this side of summer, and crying to my boyfriend about what’s happening everywhere has felt sad, but it’s also been bonding and cathartic. We’ve all heard the virtues of ‘a good cry’ – in one study, nine out of ten respondents admitted feeling better after crying – but it feels more powerful now than ever before. Could crying be a coping tool to help us get through all this?
First, a biology recap. Humans have three types of tears: basal, which stop our eyes from drying out; reflex, which are related to irritation; and psychogenic, which are shed for emotional reasons. Interestingly, we’re the only known species that sheds tears for the latter. And although it’s still a mystery as to why (side note: historically, many scientists dismissed researching tears after Charles Darwin considered them a side effect of facial muscle contractions), there are some recent evolutionary hypotheses.
One theory is that crying originates from our survival responses as babies. “Crying evolved from vocalisations designed to keep the caregiver in close proximity to their infant,” says Dr Lauren Bylsma, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies the psychology of crying. “Humans are born pretty helpless compared to other mammals. We also have the most prolonged childhood, meaning more involvement is needed by the caregiver. The idea is that crying acted as an alert in communicating distress and the need for comfort and care.”
Seeing as human babies are born without fully matured tear ducts (erm, who knew?), the development of physical tears is especially fascinating. “It’s thought they evolved for humans later in life when it would have been risky to call out because they might have attracted predators,” explains Bylsma. “If humans were near to each other, visible tears might have been a safer marker. But there’s so much that’s unknown; crying has become way more complex over the course of our lifetime.”
What is clear, however, is that it’s linked entirely to the ‘peak’ of emotion, whether that’s a positive or negative experience – those blubbery moments of joy at a wedding or the hot, fast tears that swell in our eyes mid-argument. And though we might think all the crying we’re doing right now is a negative response to these overwhelming circumstances, there are proven physiological benefits to letting it out. Indeed, research shows psychogenic tears may help our bodies self-regulate. “Just before we cry, our physiological arousals are at their highest in terms of things like increased heart rate,” says Bylsma. “Then, as the crying starts, it releases a change in the body where parasympathetic activity (which controls our ‘rest and digest’ function) increases, helping to regulate the arousal and bring us back to homeostasis.”
If you’re not convinced, there is a 2019 study published in the journal Emotion called ‘Using crying to cope’ that backs this theory up further. Researchers found that when participants were exposed to sad stimuli and asked to perform stressful tasks, criers actually breathed less rapidly and their heart rates returned to normal more quickly than non-criers. The lead researcher concluded that crying “might be useful in calming your body” during distress. Cue that carefully curated playlist of Lana Del Rey and Adele’s mopiest tunes (I know you have it).
Additionally, studies suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural painkiller and feel-good hormones. Emotionally charged tears have also been found to have a different chemical structure. They have higher concentrations of manganese and potassium, both essential nutrients for regulating blood pressure and cholesterol, and they contain more stress hormones – so it’s almost as though they’re meant to be flushed out. Think of the times you’ve cried onto your friend’s top, or alone, melodramatically, into your pillow until the tears have stopped and you feel, somehow, reset. The situation hasn’t changed but the emotions you were holding inside about it might have.
But it’s the higher protein level in emotional tears, as first discovered by biochemist William H Frey, that’s most intriguing for Heather Christle, poet and author of recently released The Crying Book. “It makes the tears thicker than the ones that appear when we’re, say, cutting an onion, causing them to fall more slowly down your face and give more of a chance for another person to notice them – and to respond to that message.”
Today, this social signal varies massively between cultures.“In Ghana, for example, there are professional mourners – people who are hired to come to funerals and cry,” says Christle , who examined the art, science and history of crying for five years when compiling her book. “Their role is to make a physical presence of the grief that people are experiencing to remind others to cry, too.”
Similarly, Japan has communal rui-katsu crying sessions, where people come together to cry (as a way to stay mentally healthy) and participants watch tear-jerking film clips and adverts to help their own tears flow. How does that work? “It activates mirror neurons so that we enter into an empathetic relationship with the person who is crying,” says Christle . “When ice forms, it often requires a speck of something other than water – a dust particle, for instance, to set the freezing into motion. Metaphorically, that’s how I sometimes think about crying; that we might be on the brink of tears, but it’s seeing someone else crying that prompts our bodies to remember the shape of tears, and give us something that our crying can take form around.”
Bylsma agrees that the evolutionary value of crying lies in the social response it prompts. “Tears elicit empathetic and caregiving reactions in others, particularly when people cry in the presence of supportive people, or those they are close to,” she says. “From studying 5,000 people across the world, we found that when you ask people retrospectively whether they feel better for crying, more than half of people think they do, but about 30% don’t – and this is based on context.” So, when we cry in sterile situations, or where people are not supportive, or are rejecting us, or we’re embarrassed – we’re likely to feel worse. “It’s the positive social support from crying that generates mood benefits,” says Bylsma, adding that when we cry over a shared experience, like the impact coronavirus is having, it has the power to unify us and can lead to even more connections. In this way crying becomes a positive experience.
But individual factors also play a part. People dealing with higher levels of stress or lack of sleep might cry more. Certain personality traits such as extroversion are related to an increase in tears. Sometimes anxiety and depression can result in more crying, other times it can have the opposite effect. The point? “There’s not one ‘normal’ in terms of crying, so people shouldn’t feel like there’s something wrong if they don’t feel they aren’t crying enough right now, or if they’re crying too much,” says Bylsma. Sure, it’s no surprise that women cry more than men (two to three times more, apparently). Some say it’s down to the smaller size of our tear ducts, the hormone prolactin or gendered social conditioning. But, more importantly, women also tend to report more positive experiences of crying across cultures.
Of course, not every cry is going to make us feel better and when we’re crying in response to an uncontrollable situation, such as the loss of a loved one, negative outcomes are particularly likely. “I’ve dealt with terrible depression and that kind of crying can feel oppressive, exhausting and can give a great feeling of powerlessness,” says Christle. There also tends to be a simplified and partisan approach to crying. “People either say ‘I’m a crier’ and believe in the necessary value of tears in every instance, or they think tears are weak, babyish and girly – even though, during the Romantic era, men’s tears were fetishised as a sign of sophistication and heightened feeling. So it’s more nuanced; tears are just as complicated as people,” Christle explains.
Clinical psychologist Dr Frank Tallis says crying can be a strong indication of authenticity, but our society has a whole set of competing values on how we ‘should’ conduct ourselves that has reduced this natural response. “Values predicated on ideas such as stoicism, having a ‘stiff upper lip’, has led to crying being seen as weak,” he says. “From a psychotherapy point of view, I feel that the Roman philosopher Seneca was closer to the truth when he said ‘tears ease the soul’. Many patients need to cry before they can move beyond a certain point in therapy. I’ve often felt that perhaps they reached a point where just words weren’t enough to express what it was they were feeling; that they had to be supplemented by a deeper and more fuller access to emotion – and that often resulted in tears.”
One aspect most experts seem to agree on, in terms of understanding our own emotions, is that we shouldn’t repress the urge to cry. Research has shown suppressing tears, especially chronically, can increase chances of suffering from mental health problems. “The very fact that we cry suggests that we do need to cry,” says Tallis. “It does seem if one surrenders to it, usually at the end, there is a feeling that perhaps something necessary has happened.” Plus, it helps come to terms with, and find meaning in, our emotions. “If we don’t access our emotions, we’re less likely to have a level of experience that involves deep feeling, and that’s when it becomes more difficult to process traumatic things,” says Tallis. There’s also evidence that crying is beneficial when we’re alone because it lies at the heart of being self-aware. “The tears force you to focus on the thing that’s bothering you, and that might to lead to a better cognitive understanding,” confirms Bylsma.
Here’s the thing: sometimes we will make it through difficult moments without tears, and then sometimes we’ll break a glass or get down to the last bag of crisps and we’ll end up wailing. Christle says it’s normal if the ‘little’ things are currently unleashing tears unexpectedly. “I hope that people are able to be tender with themselves about that,” she says. “We’re experiencing all kinds of sorrow and grief right now: for our daily lives, for people we know –and for the world in general.”
It’s why it’s hard to settle on a mode of being at the moment: worry, anger, panic, helplessness, sadness, uncertainty. (Interestingly, research says uncertainty is more stressful than ‘knowing’ something bad will happen, which could also explain our heightened emotions). Our hearts are heavy and, for me, even the OK and lighthearted moments are laced with overwhelming and searing moments of perspective and gratitude as I search for specks of positivity in all of this. And yes, sometimes the big questions creep in: will life ever be the same?
Oh, and as for that lump we feel when tears are imminent? “It’s the opposite of a lump,” says Christle . “The throat muscles are working to get as much oxygen as possible as the body knows it’s in distress. When you try and swallow, the throat resists, holding itself open to bring you much-needed air – and that’s what creates the sensation of a lump.” Perhaps this is the most helpful way to think of crying right now: that it’s not an obstruction, or a weakness, but a powerful passage to calm.
So, cry when you see NHS workers bravely showing up to work each day. Cry when you want to visit your family – but can’t. Cry when you see a rainbow picture in a window. Cry… just because. But remember, we are all in this together.
What team Stylist are crying about
“NOT BEING ABLE TO PROTECT MY SISTER IS HEARTBREAKING”
By Kayleigh Dray, Digital Editor-At-Large
“Over the past few days, I’ve cried over an episode of Friends, the bittersweet ending of my book, and when I missed a call from my best friend. But above all, I sobbed when my sister, who’s a nurse, told me she was terrified about being transferred from her usual ward to the ICU at her hospital. She’s usually so calm but she knows that, when she does get that call, she won’t be able to go home. Our mum has underlying health issues, so returning to live with her would put her in danger. My sister will have to stay with colleagues, or at a Travelodge. She can’t, won’t, stay with me, as she doesn’t want to make me ill either. And just the fact that I can’t look after my little sister makes me want to cry all over again. Weirdly, though, I always feel better after an angry sob. It’s like a deep soul cleanse, washing away my fears, unknotting that twist of anxiety in my stomach.”
“QUEUING OUTSIDE MY SUPERMARKET LEFT ME IN TEARS”
By Hannah Keegan, Features Writer
“I am not a crier. I’m not saying that with pride – if you get tearful at the sight of a puppy or a sunset, I envy you. But recently, it happened. As I arrived at the supermarket, customers were being instructed to stand three feet apart in a line that stretched far beyond the car park. “Social distancing,” the security guard mouthed. Fine, I thought, that’s sensible. But as I waited five, and then 10, and then 20 minutes, I felt my chest tightening. Was I ever going to get in? Would there even be anything for me to buy when I did? I felt panicked, oddly, and suddenly, tears were stinging my eyes. I left and walked home. Coronavirus has had an odd effect on us all, I told myself. Moments like queuing endlessly for a supermarket that you’d usually drop into, or celebrating a friend’s birthday via FaceTime crystallise the unreality of life presently. And I told myself it’s OK to feel grief for that, too.”
“SOBBING IN THE SHOWER IS MY CATHARTIC RESET”
By Meena Alexander, Sub Editor
“Last week, after a Zoom call with my family that made me miss them so much I felt physical pangs, I told my partner that I was off for my second shower of the day. As soon as I shut the door, the waterworks arrived: big, gulping gasps that made my face screw up like a baby. In our tiny London flat, the bathroom has become my haven, and the shower is my favourite place to let it all out in steamy solitude. Largely because I don’t want to worry my partner, but also there’s a warped psychology that if my face is already soaking wet, it doesn’t really count. All at once, crying in the shower can feel like the sort of self-indulgent melodrama that belongs in naff music videos and a total mental and physical reset. Then, when I’m all cried out, I wipe a hole in the steam on the mirror, give myself a stern look and walk out – refreshed and ready to face my suddenly very small world.”
“EVEN A GAME SHOW CAN SET ME OFF”
By Shannon Peter, Beauty Director
“All it takes is a mildly moving story and I’m a blubbering mess. I cry at the news, I cry at books, I cry at adverts and I cry at text messages. I even cry at game shows. And right now, I’m crying more than ever. But rather than chastise myself, or feel shameful, I’m a staunch advocate of leaning into tears. Relinquishing control of my tear ducts, letting those salty droplets slide down my cheeks, allowing that bottom lip to wobble – it’s all therapeutic. Crying gives me a visceral sense of relief, as though every teardrop is unfurling a little bit more of my tightly wound mind and body. So what if a home-video montage on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway leaves me bleary-eyed? Or if I can’t get through two minutes on TikTok without welling up to a video of @grandadjoe1933 doing something cute? I say, cry at the sad stuff, cry at the silly stuff – because after, you will hopefully end up feeling better.”
If you need to talk to someone, call the Samaritans free 24/7 on 116 123
Images: Getty Images