Mention “self-care” and some of the first few things that come to mind are deep meditation, immersing yourself in a relaxing skincare routine before bedtime, or even indulging in a refreshing açaí bowl on a hot Sunday afternoon. But not many of us view shedding tears as a form of self-care despite how relieved we feel after a satisfying tear fest.
After all, shedding tears isn’t always confined to settings such as funerals or breakups. The truth is, bawling over something as trivial as coming across pensive quotes on TikTok or tearing up in frustration over food order delays is more common than we think. This is especially so on days where we’re running on a few hours of sleep or have faced stressful events for prolonged periods of time. So why hasn’t this aspect of crying been discussed more often? Is it because we associate the action with weakness and sadness? Or does it demonstrate that we lack the ability to control our emotions despite being fully grown adults? Bernice Lim, registered psychologist and founder of Asia Psychology Centre shares more on the topic of tears.
The purpose of tears
“Crying or tearing is a natural bodily function,” Lim says. If you don’t already know, there are three types of tears, each with different functions. The first and most common purpose of tears is to lubricate the eye, and the type of tears involved in this function is called basal tears. The second purpose of tears is to wash away irritants like dust or harmful chemicals, and the tears activated for this function are called basal tears. The last and most interesting of the lot is emotional tears. “Emotional tears is a physical reaction to a variety of different emotions, including grief, frustration, joy and even empathy,” she elaborates. But what is it about emotional tears that makes it so fascinating?
No two tears are the same
Lim admits that there hasn’t been a lot of conclusive studies behind the effects of emotional tears. But some have shown that emotional tears contain mood regulating and pain inhibiting hormones such as enkephalin and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This is probably why we often feel relieved when we’re done crying into our pillows after enduring a long and stressful period. “People who feel lighter after crying are usually those who view the act as cathartic or as a means of releasing pent up emotions,” Lim reveals. She also shares that this group of people tend to be more self aware of their thoughts and feelings, associating crying with something beneficial.
On the flip side, there are those who feel worse after crying. Some even experience physical discomfort such as headaches, drowsiness or even feeling completely drained. On a physical level, it is theorised that this is due to the fact that our heart rate increases while our breathing slows down whenever we cry. This results in less oxygen reaching the brain, making you feel tired and dizzy after an emotional breakdown. Aside from that, Lim also attributes this awful sensation to psychological reasons.
Based on her experience, she shares that people who feel worse after crying usually associate the act with something embarrassing. For example, men who subscribe to toxic masculine ideas find crying uncomfortable because it’s not a “manly” thing to do. Similarly, those who grew up being taught to subdue their feelings may also equate crying with not having the strength to control their emotions, hence they are deemed as being weak. “These people view crying as a sign that they are not doing well. So they usually stop themselves from crying, or at least ensure that nobody is aware of this when they do,” she explains. And this is where problems like anger issues and anxiety arise. Furthermore, social stigma associated with mental health issues like depression still persist, so it’s not surprising that we still discuss such matters behind closed doors.
A cry for help
Lim reminds us that crying is very normal, whether you’re weeping at a touching movie scene (did anyone else find yourself sobbing at the ending scene of Everything Everywhere All At Once?) or crying at your best friend’s wedding. But she highlighted that it shouldn’t be taken lightly when it alludes to something that requires attention, especially when the waterworks come on when one is unprovoked or when it comes at inappropriate moments such as in the middle of a board meeting.
“As a psychologist, what I look for are deviations from the normal baseline of someone’s behaviour. For example, I’ll take a person who cries easily at the movies and at work as their baseline. Changes from this baseline are a data point for me when assessing their mental state,” she shares. From that baseline, she will take note on on the following behavioural changes:
- If the person has been crying even more lately
- If this is accompanied with a decrease in mood
- If their sleep has been affected (want to sleep more/less)
- If they have difficulty concentrating
She clarifies that this is not an exhaustive list of factors to consider. But if you notice that you’re experiencing the above and more or are in doubt, she strongly suggests seeking help from a professional for a proper assessment.
We love a good tearful release. But is it for everyone?
Crying can be seen as self-care since it is a healthy way of expressing emotion. But Lim would not go so far as to say that everyone should or must cry at every chance they get. “It’s really about whether you are suppressing your emotions in an unhealthy way, or denying yourself of a natural bodily reaction to your emotions. If there is not a lot of emotional suppression, or if there are other ways that your body naturally reacts to your feelings, then inducing tears isn’t necessary,” she says. Exercise has been shown to help, so those who find it difficult to cry should consider going for jogs or boxing classes as these release endorphins that help to elevate the mood.
Rather than focusing on the act of crying itself, Lim recommends improving your self-awareness about how you think, feel and react to things. What would help you to feel better?
“If you feel like you need a good cry and want to do it alone, find yourself a safe spot at an appropriate time, and allow yourself to bawl to your heart’s content. If you prefer the company of friends, reach out to them, let them know that you need support, and then cry away,” she suggests.