Monday, December 17, 2007

Crying Is Good For Both Men and Women

Jeez, I guess I've been out of commission for a bit. I think I'm done with illnesses (mine as well as family's) for a while, so I should be able to post more often.

One of the more frustrating double standards we have in our culture is the one about emotional expression. Essentially, emotions acceptable in women are pretty much everything but anger. For men, anger is really the only acceptable emotion and it isn't often thought of as "emotion," for example, angry outbursts by men aren't typically thought of as "emotional displays." This double standard is extremely limiting for both men and women, as the ability to express a full range of emotions is a sign of good mental health.

It's also physiologically healthy to cry. In addition to the simple catharsis of a good cry, it turns out we really do cry out our emotions. According to a 1999 study (yes, it's old, but I don't remember anyone really talking much about it), tears contain substances that protect the eyes as well as proteins from stress-related hormones. Dr William Frey, a US biochemist, has found a number of interesting things about tears. Identical twins aren't more similar in their crying than fraternal twins (twin studies are the gold standard in genetics research - you have an automatic control group perfectly matched on nearly all dimensions) and women's crying has nothing to do with hormone fluctuations.

Frey investigated the contents of so-called "emotional tears," tears released during emotional crying, "continuous tears," tears released to keep the eyes lubricated and "reflex tears," those that occur in response to an irritant. It turns out there really is a difference in the tears produced in response to something upsetting as opposed to chopping onions. These tears contained prolactin and ACTH, both physiological indicators of stress (prolactin
promotes lactation in women, but also appears at higher concentrations during stress; ACTH - adrenocorticotropic hormone - stimulates the adrenal cortex, something that happens during stress). The buildup of stress hormones has been correlated with depression, anxiety, sleep problems, fatigue, headaches, backaches, skin complaints and even IBS, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. So, holding onto those tears may help you feel "stronger," but it may be doing more harm than good. This may be one of those times in our society where what's truly best for us isn't in line with what we believe will induce positive perception by others.

So, here we have another way in which our society's limiting of normal expression could be damaging to your health. Woo hoo!!