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Healing power of tears

By Flavia Nassaka

If crying helps our emotional state, why is it discouraged?

Shedding tears is one of the least explainable human behaviors. It can involve anything from merely getting moist eyes to full-on sobbing.  It is at once welcomed as a form of emotional release following a traumatic event, and frowned upon as when an adult tears up before children.

Men, unlike women have more difficulty when they cry in public. Perhaps because of their traditional roles as warriors and protectors, they are expected to remain strong and avoid showing any sign of weakness to potential adversaries.

That is why it is difficult to decide what to do when, as happened recently, an outgoing prime minister got wet eyes during the handover ceremony. Former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi was handing over to new Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda amidst flowery speeches, hugs, and smiles and laughter. Then suddenly, the teary eyes came.

We have seen it before with Kampala Capital City Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago. He tears up easily at almost any moment. Similarly we have always seen people cry during burials, and on their weddings or graduation ceremonies. What happens at such moments? How can such totally different events one sad and the other joyful both cause tears? Why do some people cry so much more or less readily than others? And what’s the best way to handle all those tears?


Emotional tears

Prof. Peter Baguma, a psychologist, expresses the generally held view that crying is an expression of emotion. In all cases, elevated tension is followed by an event that triggers a biophysical shift.

“Tears are neither sad nor joyful but they are manifestations of a shift from arousal to recovery,” he says, “the situations we attach to them are just the context in which they occur.”  He says tears are most easily triggered in response to a friendly gesture, a sad event, a sympathetic voice, a familiar face, or other signs of safety. He says crying works towards regulation, stress reduction, and anger management. In that sense, the situations are not as distinct as they appear.

Dr Harriet Oketcho, a consultant psychiatrist, uses biology to explain crying. She says the human brain responds to our thoughts by releasing hormones and chemicals which send us into a state of arousal that lead to releasing tears.   Dr Oketcho focuses on `emotional tears’ which she distinguishes from basal tears or “crocodile tears” and other non-emotional tears (say, from chopping an onion).  She says women at menopause may experience unexplained crying because as they age, they tend to get depression with feelings of worthlessness in society but they can go over this with counseling and other depressants.

“When you cry for emotional reasons, you are involved in a healing process,” she says.

She explains that people who cannot produce tears at all; whether emotional or basal which keep eyes lubricated, either have dry eye effect, a treatable optical issue or their emotional communication has been impaired and therefore require medical examination.

Dr Oketcho says although we have been raised to believe that crying is unacceptable with messages such as big girls or boys don’t cry, she says it is a natural expression of emotion.

“It doesn’t only make one feel better, it’s healthy,” she says.  Unfortunately, she says, crying is a complex process and often we do not have the skills to deal with negative feelings. As one goes through the experience, people tend to crowd around with hugs, pitiful faces, and anxious inquires like “what’s wrong, why are you crying” etc. That is a mistake. Dr Oketcho says, instead, tearful individuals need a relaxed, safe space in which to process their thoughts and feelings. “If you’ve cried recently yourself, you may remember how uncomfortable it is to be bothered at a time when you’re trying to remain connected to your experience,” she says.

It is generally believed that tears are elicited when a person’s system shifts rapidly from sympathetic to parasympathetic activity- from a state of high tension to a period of recalibration and recovery.

Along this line, it is believed that it can be emotionally damaging if one fails to cry in very difficult conditions or at the height of a crisis. “This situation can be dangerous, leading to shock or an attack as one’s brain is subjected to too much stress with minimal relaxation,” says Prof. Baguma.

Some tears emerge because a problem has been solved and the system can “go off duty”.

Giving up

However, adults and children sometimes cry in connection with problems that have not yet been solved, and perhaps never will be. In these instances, tears indicate that the person is at least temporarily giving up the struggle. According to Baguma, tearing up starts in infancy when tears serve as an important communication tool, allowing babies to show their need for support. Baguma says that tool may also serve us well in adulthood as people are more willing to help people with visible tears other than those that do not have.

“Tears become a sort of social lubricant,” he says, helping to ensure the smooth functioning of a community by helping people communicate. Prof. Baguma says people should always cry whenever they feel like because when the emotion is expressed, it’s reduced. But then, he cautions, crying should be expressed in a socially acceptable way.  He says, for example, parents are discouraged from crying in presence of their children because this can traumatise the children since they are comforted when the parents appear strong.

Studies have found that women cry an average of 5.3 times a month, while men cry an average of 1.3 times per month.

Baguma says upbringing, whereby boys are nurtured to resist stress with statements such as” men don’t cry”, is a factor.

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