Why Do We Cry?
I watched the season opener of “This is Us,” an NBC block-buster hit in its fourth season. It’s known for making grown men cry, and fans tease about how difficult it is to keep watching, all the while knowing its compelling nature and poignant stories make it impossible not to watch. I’m prepared for the emotion. I watched it strategically knowing I had plenty of time and no immediate responsibilities afterwards. In the first 20 minutes, I realized, a match to the episode name “Strangers,” that THIS episode might not be that emotional. I was simply getting to know the “new characters” of this season, so it would be lighter. I missed the old characters, of course, but I was willing to get to know these new ones, knowing it would be worth it. And then, BAM I got blind-sided when I understood that one of the ‘new’ characters, was deeply connected to characters I already knew and loved. The reality of what they revealed struck me, enhanced by a beautiful song being played and sung with an aching throbbing truth, and I burst into tears. In seconds, I was sobbing.
My basic philosophy when anyone is in touch with their emotions is to let them go for a bit—five minutes or so—until getting to a point of understanding, speaking about it, or perhaps shifting into getting centered. I did this for myself, and all the while I was wondering, given that this is a TV show and not “really happening” to anyone I know and love, what might be behind my agonizing outburst of tears. At first, I identified with the characters who would obviously go through life having to accept the challenges that they and their child would face. Their hopes and dreams for who their child would be and how he would grow up—now would have to change drastically. How hard that would be! I slowly leaned into the lessons they would face as a family, and I reasoned that every disappointment or heartbreak carried gifts with it that would be lovingly bestowed… My next step was realizing how true this was in my own family. My parents had suffered similar disappointments with their children—the unexpected need for surgery in one of their newborn daughters; a disabling condition that befell another daughter when she was just a toddler. These episodes of loss and disaster live on in all of us. Watching, reading, listening to any such experience happening to anyone can bring back your own memories of the gut-wrenching realities in your own life. We cry for others; we cry for ourselves. Actually, not everyone cries… but we feel it just the same.
Then there’s the science of tears (or some small part of it) that bears sharing. Dr Nick Knight, PhD out of London, writes with mirth and candor, displaying his scientific brilliance mixed with humor. Here are a few of his tidbits:
- Crying is part of our human emotional package – love it, or hate it.
- Your body, being the incredible feat of engineering that it is, doesn’t make just one type of tear – you make three: basal, reflex and psychic tears. Basal tears keep your cornea (the transparent front of your eye) nourished and lubricated so your eyes don’t dry out. Reflex tears help you to wash out any irritations to your eyes from foreign particles or vapors. Psychic tears are the tears produced in response to that strong emotion you may experience from stress, pleasure, anger, sadness, suffering and indeed, physical pain. Psychic tears even contain a natural painkiller, called leucine enkephalin – perhaps, part of the reason why you might feel better after a good cry!
- How do your tears link to emotions? There is an area of your brain precisely designed to deal with your emotions, called the limbic system (specifically the hypothalamus), which is hard-wired into your autonomic nervous system (that’s the part you don’t have any control over). This system, via a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, has a degree of control over the lacrimal ‘tear’ system; and it is this tiny molecule which then stimulates tear production.
Tears are a positive representation of who we are. They demonstrate not only our deep emotional connections with our world – past, present, and future – but allow us to visibly celebrate that fact. Psychic tears are also scientifically proven to make you feel better. So, go on and wear your tears with pride.
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