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October 11, 2011
Don't Hold Back, Displaying Emotions and Crying Are Great For Your Health

Emotional crying is a universal, uniquely human behavior. When we cry, we clearly send all sorts of emotional signals. Last week researchers from Indiana University in the U.S. revealed that sportsmen who let themselves have a cry after losing a match perform better in the long term. According to scientists their lack of inhibition is a sign of higher levels of self-esteem.

The shedding of tears due to emotions is unique to humans. In the past, researchers suggested that crying helps carry stressful chemicals away from the body, or that it simply makes us feel better, or that it lets babies signal health problems.

However, this is not the only benefit of crying -- emerging evidence suggests shedding a tear can reduce allergies, and even lower the pain of rheumatoid arthritis.

Some evidence suggests crying helps regulate the immune system. In a study in 2006, scientists asked 60 patients with eczema and an allergy to latex to watch the Meryl Streep weepie Kramer vs Kramer. Before and after the film the team placed latex on their skin, and measured the reaction.

Compared with those who remained dry-eyed, volunteers who cried had a reduced skin reaction to the latex after the movie. Their skin also had lower levels of inflammatory markers called immunoglobulins, which increase at the site of an allergic reaction.

And a Japanese study of patients with the auto-immune disease rheumatoid arthritis revealed that those who cry easily have less pain and fewer symptoms than those with a stiff upper lip.

Blood tests revealed that immediately after crying, the levels of naturally-occurring immune chemicals that usually aggravate the condition were lower, and that the blubberers had better control of their condition a year later.

Women generally cry more than men, explains Professor Ad Vingerhoets, a psychologist and leading researcher on crying, based at the University of Tilburg, Holland.

However, it seems both sexes cry equally at major life events such as bereavement.

And studies also show that, compared with women, men tend to cry at positive events whereas females cry at negative ones.

We can mostly blame these differences on hormones.

‘The main crying hormone in women is prolactin,’ says Professor Vingerhoets.

Levels of the hormone rise just before and during crying, and experts are divided on its role in crying. Some say it increases empathy in the observer -- interestingly, studies show prolactin rises during pregnancy and stays high in the weeks after giving birth. However, others say that prolactin can also boost feelings of helplessness in the person crying.  

When it comes to men, their hormones may restrict tears, as Professor Vingerhoets explains.

‘Recent research suggests that testosterone may actually inhibit crying -- hence why men cry less. But testosterone levels decrease as men age, which may be why we have observed that some men cry more frequently as they get older.’

It is the individual variation in levels of hormones such as testosterone that may explain why some people cry at the drop of a hat, while others remain dry-eyed.

And according to Professor Vingerhoets, two personality traits that particularly determine whether one person cries more than another are empathy and neuroticism.

The more neurotic a person is, and the more sensitive they are to other people’s feelings, the more likely they are to cry.


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