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Is having a good cry good for you?

Posted Feb 10 2009 12:47pm

The other day, I had a good cry and it made me feel much better. It had been a tough and rather worrying couple of days (for several reasons that I won’t bore you with) and I stood in the kitchen and had a really good cry for a couple of minutes.

I don’t cry very often but, just sometimes, I feel a sense of relief from releasing my emotions in a big noisy burst. My Yorkshire grandmother used to call it ‘having a good old sob.’ (It plays havoc with the mascara, but hey…)

Sometimes, when I’m working with a client, emotions might come up for them that they just need to let go of. They have a cry and they say afterwards, ‘Gosh, I really needed that…’

We don’t always realise what we are holding onto in our bodies and that release - through exercise or laughter or a good old cry - can be wonderfully liberating.

No misunderstandings here. I am not suggesting that we should all be going around baring our innermost souls on the bus, at work, in the pub. It is probably not very helpful to you if you find yourself feeling tearful most of the time - not to say, highly inconvenient and perhaps a sign that you need to see a good therapist!

But so much of the work that I do is about helping people to become more consistently aware of what is going on inside them - and then giving them the tools to take care of what they are feeling, to nurture themselves and give themselves what they need to feel better in progressive and healthful ways.

And, if one day you find yourself feeling that you need a good cry, then I’d say let yourself do that.

When I stood in the kitchen and cried I was fortunate enough to have someone put their arms round me and just hold me. This person wasn’t afraid of my tears. He just knew that I needed to do this simple thing and he stood silently and supportively with me. That was just what I needed him to do and I very quickly felt so much better for having expressed and shared the sadness I felt.

But today I have come across a piece of research that asks Is Crying Benefical? 

The abstract reads:

Lay opinion and extensive survey data indicate that crying is a
cathartic behavior that serves to relieve distress and reduce arousal.
Yet laboratory data often indicate that crying exacerbates distress and
increases autonomic arousal. In this article, we present a framework
for explaining variations in the psychological effects of crying as a
function of (a) how the effects of crying are measured, (b) conditions
in the social environment, (c) personality traits of the crier, and (d)
the affective state of the crier.

And this article in The New York Times interviews one of the authors of research, Jonathan Rottenberg, a psychologist at the University of South Florida, and provides a summary of the findings.

The article reads:

In a study published in the December issue of The Journal of Social
and Clinical Psychology, Dr. Rottenberg, along with Lauren M. Bylsma of
the University of South Florida and Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg
University in the Netherlands, asked 5,096 people in 35 countries to
detail the circumstances of their most recent crying episode. About 70
percent said that others’ reactions to their breakdown were positive,
comforting. But about 16 percent cited nasty or angry reactions that,
no surprise, generally made them feel worse. Given that the most
obvious social function of crying is to rally support and sympathy, the
emotional impact of the tears depends partly on who is around and what
they do. The study found crying with just one other person present was
significantly more likely to produce a cathartic effect than doing so
in front of a larger group. “Almost all emotions are, at some level,
directed at others, so their response is going to be very important,”
said James J. Gross, a psychologist at Stanford.’

Hmmm.. So no wonder that I felt so much better after having my ‘good cry’. I had someone there with me who responded in the way that was most helpful to me at the time. If he had ignored me or told me to ‘pull myself together’ I would probably have been left feeling ashamed, lonely and confused.And imagine how I would have felt if he had got angry!

There is a bit of a taboo around crying in most Western cultures, isn’t there? Think about all the wailing and moaning and ululating and the collective expressions of grief that are common in many countries in, for example, the Middle East. We British, on the other hand, tend to ‘keep a stuff upper lip.’

I can remember situations where I have seen someone crying uncontrollably whilst the person next to them looked embarrassed or irritated, looked away, told them to ’stop it’…

I have had big, strapping Yorkshiremen in my consulting room who have burst into tears over something that they’ve been bottling up inside them (another of my Grandma’s favourite expressions) for a very long time and I can see the look of horror on their faces. Their internal monologue probably goes something like this: ‘Oh, no. I am crying!! And not only am I crying, but I am crying in front of a stranger who happens to be a girl… What will she think of me? What a complete idiot I am. How do I get out of here as quickly as possible?’

Personally, although I certainly don’t set out to make people cry - and I really don’t think therapy has to be a tearful and painful affair - it is always a powerful moment when someone realises that they’ve been carrying something unhelpful around inside them and that it is now safe to express it and let go of it.

Therapy is sometimes the only space where someone can feel safe enough to cry. That person knows that they will not be judged or ridiculed. They will not be ‘burdening’ a friend or family member with all those messy and oh-so inconvenient emotions. They certainly will not be experiencing angry or hurtful reactions.

Personally, I believe in the healing power of laughter, fun and kindness. Or a swim or a massage or a good film. Possibly also the odd square of 85% cocoa content chocolate when appropriate. So I am not suggesting today that we should announce a National Crying Week.

I merely suggest that, next time you see someone crying, help them to make it a ‘good cry’. Put your own fears or embarrassments aside. Don’t tell them to stop. Just quietly, supportively be with them until they feel better.

When someone is crying they are in a very suggestible state. They are opening themselves up. It’s a great opportunity to help them to feel safe and cared about. So give ‘em a hug or let them know you care.

After all, it’s been researched now, hasn’t it? :-P

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