Crying is a part of being human, says BILL MERRINGTON

WHEN was the last time you cried? At a funeral perhaps or after a hilarious joke? Crying has fascinated mankind for thousands of years. Tears are unique to the human experience. Crying is thought to bring relief and even improve one's health, while holding in the tears is thought to be putting a person at risk of developing health problems. It can inhibit aggression in assaulters and promote social connectedness in the community.

Darwin thought tears resulted from an adaptive function that should have died out with evolutionary development. Tears seem to have been designed for every stage of life. For babies, it is their main way of communicating. It purposefully aids their survival and attachment to their caregiver.

The tears of a child with a scraped knee makes sense.Teenagers can emotionally burst out into tears. As adults, it’s difficult to ignore anyone who is crying. Although it might not be clear why a person is shedding tears. It could be because of anger, fatigue, frustration, gratitude, loneliness, sorrow, pain or guilt and confession. We now know that crying is a complex behaviour influenced by biological, psychological and sociocultural forces.

We often weep when we are least able to fully verbalise complex overwhelming emotions and struggle to articulate our manifold feelings. "Tears aren’t just tears of sadness, they’re tears of searching for the meaning of our fleeting existence," (Mary Oliver).

For men, history has alternated from seeing it is a sign of virtue to a sign of weakness. Religiously, it has been suggested only real prayers contain tears being shed, while some cultures thought tears would bring the assent of rain.

Whatever the latest opinion might be, it is definitely part of what we call being a human being. We may think it is purely associated with emotional encounters that mark significant events such as failure of an exam, a relationship breakdown, homesickness or positive events such as achievements, reunions and of course weddings. But this is not the whole story.

Researchers suggest there are three types of crying for adults. First, there is intense despondent, often uncontrollable crying often when a person is infringed with overwhelming bad news.

Secondly, there is a more secretive, salient calm cry, where tears fall slowly with a more controlled release of emotion. This is seen as a conscious coping strategy for expressing and communicating feelings that are not described easily with words. This type of crying is a kind of ‘last resort’ effort to communicate in a difficult situation. Thirdly, there is a kind of ‘crying within’ with watery eyes but no tears, as the person holds the pain within. However, there is another way of looking at this.

Crying can be seen as either a way of drawing attention for help or as a deep sign that a person is offering support. Unless of course you are chopping onions which produces a vapour which when in contact with moist eyes produces sulphuric acid, hence our tears are attempting to dilute the painful substance!

Babies cry, kids weep, adolescents whine and adults shed tears. In the war it was unacceptable to cry in the trenches as it was seen as a sign of weakness. Today, some have found that tears come while driving. It may be because of the privacy and the opportunity to think and reflect.

Perhaps it is watching a good old movie that brings out your tears. It is thought that movies allow us to be cathartic where we experience our own sadness through the eyes of others on the screen. It can also teach us how to cope in the future with adverse situations and to reflect on what’s important in life.

What about when we can’t cry? The reasons can be the same as why we cry. It might be numbness; sometimes people mistake the lack of tears for the absence of grief. The aesthetic period of grief is common and can prevent us from being overwhelmed. At other times, we may be too exhausted or afraid to cry. Perhaps we have too much trauma in our lives such that we now believe feelings simply don’t matter. We can create a distancing from others to protect ourselves from emotional harm. But in the end, we have lost an important emotional language of communication.

So is crying good for you? The evidence is mixed, but many find that after a good cry they feel more at ease. If you fear you won’t stop crying, the answer is to have a cold shower! Let’s give the final word to Charles Dickens who said, "it opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper. So cry away!".