Until the Industrial Revolution, crying in public was considered normal, even for men. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews, as part of their funeral rites, would cry into "lacrimatories.” These small vials full of tears were often sealed up and buried with the deceased as a tribute. During the 19th Century Victorian period, the grieving collected their tears in ornate bottles. When tears evaporatd from the tightly corked bottles, official mourning ended. But with the advent of the Industrial Age, diligent, unemotional workers were needed and crying became a private matter.
But there’s more to tears than meets the eye. "Protective” tears moisten the eye, wash away irritants, and protect it from infection. But these protective or "irritant tears” — caused for example, by chopping onions — are different fom "emotional tears” — tears caused by emotions, such as grieving. Biochemist and tear expert Dr. William Frey has researched chemical differences between protective and emotional tears. Emotional tears contain three chemicals released by the body during stress: 1) Leucine-enkephalin — a mood-elevating and pain reducing endorphine 2) ACTH — a hormone considered to be the most reliable indicator of stress and 3) Prolactin — the hormone that regulates milk production in mammals.
Frey states that emotional crying has a physical purpose: tears are secreted through a duct, much like urination. He believes that like urination, tearing may be involved in removing toxic substances or waste products from the body. He posits that this is why so many people report feeling better after crying. The venting of emotions is helpful, but the actual chemical composition of the discharged tears may be involved in this feeling of well-being.
Interestingly, there is a 24 percent higher concentration of protein in emotional tears than in irritant tears. This protein carries the molecular code for emotions throughout the body. Frey also states that our tear gland concentrates manganese, a mineral involved with our moods, and tears remove this concentrated mineral from our body. The concentration of manganese is 30 times greater in tears than in blood serum. And while irritant tears were 98 percent water, emotional tears contained many more toxins.
So why have studies found that adult women tend to cry four times more frequently than men? (Men weep an average of 1.4 times per month, while women cry about 5.3 times per month). Boys and girls under age 12 cry with the same frequency and the same amount. But between ages 12 and 18 a gender difference in crying develops. This is also the time period when women develop higher levels of the stress-sensitive hormone prolactin. Women have 60 percent more prolactin than men. One more theory for men crying less often than women is that men sweat more than women, thereby releasing toxic chemicals through their sweat glands.
And why do men and women cry differently? Men cry quietly and their eyes brim neatly with some tears. Women make crying noises as lots of tears stream down their cheeks. The reason for the difference is simple — men’s tear glands are structurally smaller than women’s. Knowing this, women and men really can’t accuse each other of crying too little or too much. And apparently, working through grief is the hardest thing you will ever do.
Up to a few decades ago our society viewed crying as a loss of control and a sign of weakness. In 1972 Edmund Muskie was driven out of the U.S. presidential race after crying during a speech. Today, however, we seem to be accepting the view that there is value in emotional crying. Dr. Frey noted that autopsies of some chronic depressives have revealed high concentrations of manganese in the brain, and concluded that crying may be a way of keeping depression at bay. Perhaps learning appropriate crying can reduce our need for psychotherapists. Studies also show that healthy people tend to cry and have a more positive attitude toward tears than those who suffer from ulcers or colitis.
Crying is the most inexpensive, natural and powerful mechanism for coping with pain, stress and sorrow. By stifling crying, legitimate emotions are not released and unproductive personality traits like rudeness, and potentially harmful acts such as school shootings can result. We should encourage healthy crying. After all, weeping is probably a necessary contributing factor to human survival.
Barbara LaRaia is a frequent contributor to The Daily Journal, has a masters degree in Counseling Psychology, and lives in San Bruno.