Maggie Babb describes the crying moments in her life so vividly that her prose is almost enough to bring you to, well, tears.
"Usually the first tears begin to flow copiously, then my breathing becomes involved with a ragged breath," said the resident of Lineboro, in Carroll County, who was among several area residents asked to reflect upon sorrowful times. "When I am deeply upset, I cry silently, breath suspended, followed by a gasping inhalation. I usually cover my face with my hands in a desire to be alone with my intense feelings. When I am by myself, sometimes there is wailing."
Most of us can relate to Babb's accounts. We've been there: be it the loss of a mother; the birth of a child; a bitter divorce; a reconciliation; an unexpected pink slip; an accomplishment when failure seemed imminent; a fit of anxiety; a bout of depression; a painful injury; a tragic scene in a motion picture; a horrific report on the nightly news; even a Ravens victory or defeat.
To cry is human, for we are the only animals whose emotions come with tears. For babies, crying is a primary form of communication. As we grow, and our words kick in, so do cultural norms about when and where we should cry, who should cry or what we should cry about.
Yet considering the many personal and social moments that drive our emotions, one may wonder: Is crying good for you?
Apparently folks in Japan and the United Kingdom believe so. Recently, both countries have seen a proliferation of so-called misery clubs, groups that summon people for a collective, cathartic (sometimes movie-induced) cry.
Recently, some newsmakers have been moved to weeping in public. At the Democratic National Convention in Denver last Tuesday, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden wept as he addressed Delaware delegates whom he credited for supporting him through personal and professional crises. British recording artist Sarah Brightman was moved to tears before performing during last month's Beijing Games' opening ceremony.
And the Games themselves brought out tears in many athletes: U.S. women's 100-meter-hurdles runner Lolo Jones cried after losing in the event final, where she lost a huge lead after stumbling over a hurdle just shy of the finish. When the U.S. men's volleyball team captured the gold medal by defeating favorite Brazil in the final, U.S. men's coach Hugh McCutcheon, whose father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was stabbed to death in Beijing one day after the Games began, buried his head in his hands and left the court just before breaking down emotionally.
Those who probe the science of tears debate the benefits of a good cry, yet most say that if you feel like doing so, don't hold back.
"We're the most social creatures on the planet, and we have a highly developed form of communication that has its roots in something primal," said Chip Walter, science journalist and author of the book, Thumbs, Toes and Tears, which explores traits that are unique to humans. "[Crying] is our way of saying to another human, 'I am really upset.' "
Tears are so much a part of the human experience that it's virtually impossible to restrain them at all times.
"There are three categories of production of tears. The first is the steady, base flow of tears our eyes produce in a continuous manner [basal tears, which lubricate and clean the eyes] before any eye irritation or emotional tears get added to the flow," said Dr. Elliott H. Myrowitz, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins' Wilmer Eye Institute. He says that crying can help those with severe dry eyes by producing more liquid for the eyes.
"The second category of tears," he says, "is that produced from any irritation, such as cutting onions [they are called reflex tears]. The third category is crying or weeping, called psychogenic tears. It is very interesting that the duration and frequency of psychogenic tears changes dramatically from infancy to childhood to adulthood. Needing help or offering help is a common factor in emotional crying."
Some scientists have argued that psychogenic tears sometimes contain stress hormones, and that crying flushes them out of the body. But Myrowitz disagrees.
"I would say that's a real stretch," he said. "The volume of liquid the eye produces is so small that any systemic hormonal imbalance could not be purged with tears."
Emotional tears are one of humankind's most common distress signals, a visual element that bolsters wailing and facial contortion.
"Tears are a sign of vulnerability," said Randolph Cornelius, professor and chair of Vassar College's department of psychology. "There is data that suggests that people respond to the tears of other people by wanting to comfort them. Tears have a beneficial effect in that they bring comfort to us and they have a major physiological effect on our well-being."
Cornelius isn't alone in extolling the physiological effects of crying. In the 1997 book Cure By Crying, author Thomas Stone says that after suffering for years from depression, headaches, insomnia and addiction, and finding no relief in psychotherapy, he turned to extensive periods of crying after watching a television program that featured the topic. He wrote that crying cured him by helping him to purge emotions he had never confronted fully. He later founded an institute that explored crying as a cure.
Yet though psychogenic tears are a means of seeking comfort, some folks choose to cry alone. Others cry during joyful moments or when moved by compassion. That's why Russell Friedman, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Grief Recovery Institute, said that crying, particularly for adults, is merely a signal of emotions. He argues that from a therapeutic standpoint, if you're not accustomed to crying, then you likely will not benefit from doing so.
"Crying isn't good or bad; it just is," Friedman said. "Recently, I spoke to a woman who was worried because her brother had died two weeks ago and she hadn't cried. I asked her, 'Where does it say that you have to cry to feel sad?' Tears are just water coming down the face. I've known people who cry all the time, but they never grow."
Friedman says societal norms regarding when, where and how to cry have become so pervasive that often patients come to him all but seeking permission to cry. As soon as he says it's fine to do so, they bawl away.
Still he encourages patients to cry if crying is how they regularly process their emotions. The important thing, he says, is to refrain from keeping emotions bottled up. He says those who are looking to relieve their woes would often find it more healthy to communicate their feelings with people they can trust.
"Sometimes, someone who comes to me will start crying and talking, and I tell them, 'You can't talk while you're crying.' The tears disappear, and then you hear their story. That is more effective; tears only indicate sadness. The biggest gift I can give a griever is to say, 'I hear you loud and clear.' "
Societal norms also play a role in who should and shouldn't cry, with men often falling under the latter category. Ten years ago, Cornelius collaborated with an international study by Tilburg University in the Netherlands that probed crying in 29 different countries; it found that men tend to cry alone. The study also showed that women cry more than men, but ratios differed based on a country's cultural norms.
According to the study, in the U.S., women cry about 3.5 times a month, men 1.9 times a month.
Elliott Myrowitz referred questions about the psychological aspect of crying to his wife, Cathy, a clinical social worker, who works with people with depression and anxiety. Like Friedman, she said she encourages people to cry when they feel like doing so.
"If you're feeling something right now, and you're pretty sad and you don't cry, that's probably not a good thing, but it's understandable that around co-workers you probably won't cry," said Cathy Myrowitz. She said that her last memorable cry came when her son's football team lost in last year's state tournament, ending a close-knit team's season on a dismal note.
"Every time I thought about it, tears welled up in my eyes," said Myrowitz. "The problem comes when people don't cry when they are genuinely moved. You lose your girlfriend or your dog dies, and you might feel that it's stupid to cry. But people should cry when they feel like crying; it, in itself, is a natural response to grief and a natural response to joy."
WHY WE CRY
Psychogenic tears occur when strong emotions trigger activity in the limbic system, the portion of the brain that includes the hypothalamus (which regulates response to pain as well as controls pleasure, anger and aggressive behavior). The hypothalamus influences the brain's autonomic system, which controls the gland on the top of the eyeball (lacrimal) that secretes tears. When tears flow, some are spread around the eyeball when we blink, with the remaining liquid caught by our lacrimal sac. But a prolonged cry causes our sacs to overflow, sending tears down to our nose (tear chemicals in our nostrils cause a runny nose) and our mouths.