One of the great things about therapy is having a space to talk where normal social rules don’t apply. It allows a freedom to explore things which may feel too difficult to bring to family or friends and a chance to allow painful emotions to be felt in a safe, confidential space.
Allowing emotions may involve crying, though not for all of us. Having difficulty expressing feelings can be a reason for seeking help in itself, as can a tendency to be flooded with uncontrollable emotion. If you find yourself crying much more than usual for no clear reasons it may be a signal that depression is at work and a sign that it’s time to get help. A different depressed person may feel completely numb and never cry at all.
Our genes, culture and family life will all shape our attitude to crying and there is no right or wrong way to connect with our feelings. Where one person may well up at a John Lewis Christmas advert, another will remain dry-eyed at the most heart-wrenching moments in their lives. It doesn’t necessarily mean that their feelings are less profound.
Crying is a great example of how our bodies and minds are so intricately connected. Imagine you are sitting in a meeting or out at a social event. Suddenly someone says something which leads you to have a thought and causes a painful feeling. You may experience a lurch in your stomach, a sharp intake of breath, or numbness in a part of your body.This bodily response is then fed back once more to the brain. By way of the neural connections between the lacrimal gland and the brain, our bodies can turn the myriad of thoughts, images, feelings and fantasies we are experiencing into tears.
So, here you are, already feeling a bit self conscious, and now you are creeping towards an embarrassing outburst of emotion. What do you do? You may tighten your throat muscles to, literally, choke back the tears and use your cognitive powers to think of something cheerful, bland or distracting.
Sitting in a therapy room, your response to a painful thought might be quite different. Your body may relax enough to let the tears flow. No restriction of the throat, tensing up of the body and no suppression of the thoughts. We may have all sorts of feelings around crying, even being in a private space with a therapist, but let’s take a look at what those tears might be doing for our system.
A common view is that crying is a good release of tension. One study showed that tears shed during emotional crying have a different chemical composition to ones shed as a response to, say, chopping an onion. The idea leading from this is that these chemicals build up in the body during emotional stress and that crying them out helps reduce this stress and restore equilibrium, enhancing healthy bodily functioning. Indeed, other studies have shown that physical symptoms such as headaches, ulcers, hypertension, and insomnia are all linked to the failure to cry. Whether you feel rage, hurt, frustration or grief,shedding tears might be an important part of this release.
So crying may improve your mood, but what if you feel very depressed and are crying all the time?
As you move through the process of therapy and gain new awareness about your feelings, the nature of your tears may shift. By gradually awakening these new emotions – often painful ones – and facing them together with your therapist, you may begin to experience your feelings in a newly charged way and feel lighter and clearer as a result.
Whether or not you feel your mood has lifted following crying, there may be a significant shift of sensation; an unfolding of something – perhaps a strong release of an emotional charge. It’s akin to the way that therapy is not always a key to immediately feeling ‘better’. Crying is often an important part of opening up to your feelings, accepting your emotional state and learning about yourself within that process.