Recently I was reading through the final proof of my upcoming book, Uncertain Grace, when I realized how much I had mentioned crying in the book. The whole experience was an emotional roller coaster and I often expressed not only my sadness but also my sense of overwhelm through tears.
Crying is a part of the human experience. It is how infants express their need for comfort or care. In adults crying expresses emotion and helps us communicate. Tears make the face appear sad and evokes feelings of empathy in others.
You might not be surprised to find out the crying is different between men and women. Men cry an average of 10 times a year while women cry an average of 50 times. Women also cry about twice as long as men when they do cry, about six minutes for women compared to two or three minutes for men.
Hormonal differences may also have an impact. Testosterone appears to inhibit crying while prolactin, found in higher levels in women, promotes it. But we are also built different. Most women have shallower tear ducts than men do, which means they overflow faster and easier.
No matter the gender, the human body produces three different types of tears:
- BASAL tears lubricate and protect your eyes. They’re constantly secreted in tiny quantities, about 1 gram over a 24-hour period, and coat your eyes when you blink.
- REFLEX tears are released in response to irritants such as wind, dust, smoke or strong vapors such as onions.
- EMOTIONAL or PSYCHIC tears are the ones we most often think about, our crying tears. These tears are produced in response to strong emotion such as stress, pleasure, anger, sadness, frustration and physical pain.
All tears are a combination of salt water, oils, antibodies and enzymes. Basal tears have three layers: a thin mucous layer that sits directly on the eye, a watery layer in the middle and a thin oily layer on top that prevents the tear from evaporating. Reflex tears have the same combination, but the watery layer is larger, and they have more antibodies to stop harmful microorganisms.
Emotional tears contain higher levels of stress hormones and a natural painkiller called leucine enkephalin. Scientists believe this is the reason why we feel better after a good cry. Your brain is actually the culprit when it comes to emotional tears. Strong emotions trigger the hypothalamus to tell your autonomic nervous system to secrete a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that stimulates tear production.
Tips to Control Crying
Crying is normal and there are many reasons why a person might cry. Some people cry more than others and not just because of their gender. I cry easily. A touching television commercial can send me into tears. When I get mad or frustrated it usually comes out in tears. And while I’m glad I can be such a sensitive person it can also be inconvenient and inappropriate.
If you are a crier like me, you know that some people perceive it to be a weakness and it can make others uncomfortable. Even though I didn’t want to, I have cried in the workplace and during stressful conversations with friends and family. In those situations, I did everything I could to hold back the tears, but I was not successful.
Taking your mind off the situation can sometimes prevent your tears, but if the mental redirect isn’t working here are some physical things you can try to hold back your tears.
- Concentrate on your breathing. Take a deep breath and focus on breathing slowly and calmly.
- Blinking and eye movement. Moving your eyes around and blinking can help hold back the tears.
- Relax your face. When we cry our face gets tense, focus on relaxing the muscles in your face to prevent crying.
- Release the lump in your throat. Emotional crying affects the muscle at the back of your throat causing it to feel like you have a lump in your throat. Sipping water, swallowing and yawning can help make the lump go away.
- Exercise. Exercising causes the body to produce good feeling endorphins that can distract you from crying.
Just because you can control your tears doesn’t mean you should. Emotional tears are an outward expression of inner feelings and sometimes you need a good cry. Just blame it on your shallow tear ducts.