What function do tears, crying play in grieving process?
March 14, 2016 5:51 AM
By Mark Roth / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Tearless grief bleeds inwardly.” -- Christian Nevell Bovee
That epigram, from an early American writer, has a great deal of scientific truth to it, says University of Pittsburgh psychiatry professor Lauren Bylsma.
Not only can crying help in the healing process of grief, but those who can’t cry when they lose someone they love often are much more vulnerable to depression and other health problems, she says.
“When people hold back their tears, it does seem to lead to mental and physical problems,” she says. “It takes a lot of effort to hold back tears.”
Ms. Bylsma, who does research on children who are prone to depression, is also the lead author of a 2008 study that looked at the crying experiences of more than 5,000 men and women from around the world.
The key finding: Most people do feel better after they’ve had a good cry, but their sense of catharsis depends partly on where the crying occurs and whom they’re with.
People tend to feel better if they cry alone, or somewhat privately in front of one other person who can offer sympathy and support, the study says. If they weep in front of two or more people, for instance in the workplace or among strangers, they are less likely to get that intimate support and are more likely to be embarrassed.
People also are more likely to experience catharsis — from a Greek wording meaning to cleanse — if the situation they are crying about is resolved, whether it’s a fight with a spouse or frustration in the office.
Of course, the death of a loved one can’t be resolved, but the study also notes that people can get a sense of catharsis if the crying gives them new insights into their suffering. One of those revelations is that even if you can’t be with the people you lost, you can be comforted by your memories of them.
Whether it is from grief or any other cause, crying occurs about two or three times more often in women than men, Ms. Bylsma says. Some of that may be due to biological differences, but “there is the cultural aspect that it is generally more acceptable for women to cry,” although she notes that it is becoming much more accepted in America for men to cry openly.
Cultural norms can have strong effects not just on crying, but on rituals of grief in general, says Paul Rosenblatt, an emeritus social sciences professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied grief practices around the world.
In Egypt, for instance, women are expected to be highly emotional for months after a death, and one researcher “saw bereaved mothers who were just wiped out for years.” On the Indonesian island of Bali, on the other hand, crying after a death is frowned upon, partly because of the traditional belief that weeping “makes you much more vulnerable to witchcraft and sorcery attacks.”
No matter what the cultural practices are, it’s important to keep individuals’ differences in mind, Mr. Rosenblatt says. If someone is crying after a death, he says, “it could be a way of saying ‘I don’t have words,’ or it could be a way of saying ‘please help me,’ or it could be from a sense of their own mortality.”
Besides the psychological salve of crying, there are direct physical benefits, too, Pitt’s Ms. Bylsma says.
Before someone cries, blood pressure and heart rate climb, and the tears then help the body return to baseline levels, a process known as homeostasis.
Humans are the only species known to cry emotional tears, and scientists are not sure how the trait developed. Many animals make distress vocalizations, and one theory is that crying developed as a silent way to show distress that would not attract predators the way wailing or shrieking would. The chemical makeup of emotional tears is also distinct from tears that someone cries when peeling an onion, for instance.
Many people associate crying during grief with depression, Ms. Bylsma says, but in fact, deeply depressed people are less likely to cry.
In those who are extremely depressed or traumatized, she says, crying can actually be a sign of healing.
In work she did with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she says, “when we asked them to recount their trauma, at first it would just be in a monotone, but then they would finally be in touch with their emotions and start crying. That was always kind of a turning point for me in those trauma cases.”
Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1130 or on Twitter @markomar
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