Crying: A help or hindrance?

To cry, or not to cry, that is the question. 
In the words of Hans Christian Anderson, “for a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”
Little is known about the true function of tears. Humans are the only species able to shed tears of emotion, but the question of why remains unanswered. For some it is believed to be for relief, to alleviate us from certain feelings and emotions. For others it is seen as a form of comfort, or support. In the world of Psychology there are conflicting results for these two views.
From personal experience an episode of crying can be freeing. As the tears stream down my face I am able to release the extreme emotions that I am not always able to portray in another way. It can bring a huge wave of relief, it can help me work out how I really feel, and it can give me a chance to process my emotions before I tackle them in a more practical way.
Psychological research, however, has shown that crying may not be as useful to us as we think. In their diary led study, Jonathan Rottenberg and colleagues found that crying had little to no effect on the mood of nearly two thirds of their sample. In fact, in some of their sample, even the urge to cry was associated with a decrease in mood. It was only a minority who felt a benefit from crying, emphasising the possible negative effect it can have on our mood.
On the other hand, time has been suggested as a factor in the effect of crying on mood. In a study conducted by the University of Tilburg, participants were filmed while watching ‘Life is Beautiful’ and ‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale’. They were assessed before the films, as well as immediately afterwards, 20 minutes and 90 minutes prior to watching.
Half of the participants were reported to have cried during the films. Of these, the majority noted feeling worse immediately after the film had finished, which appears to support the view that crying can have a negative effect on mood. However, in the 90 minute prior assessment, those who had cried during the movie actually recorded feeling better than before the movie had started. While the cause of this mood change has been unexplained, it was concluded that it may take time following the initial deterioration for mood to be increased, but can result in a more improved mood than initially felt.
It appears that there may be usefulness in tears after all, although there is not yet a clear explanation for them. In the depression community there is also some support for the usefulness of crying. According to Therese Borchard, most of those who responded to the question ‘does crying help?’ admitted to feeling a sense of relief following crying, they often felt ‘lighter’. There were some, however, that found it difficult to stop crying once they had started, and this was detrimental to their health.
While research appears conflicting, there is one thing to be taken away from this: crying can be helpful, depending on your own experience of it. It is important to be aware of when crying can become a hindrance to your mental health, and when you may need to seek help or make changes in order to avoid any negative consequences. If you suffer from depression especially, it is important to be in touch with how you are feeling before and after crying, and find another way to process your emotions if you need to.
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Written by Phiz Berry
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