The healthy art of tears
I worked with Sarah at a company back in my early thirties, it was a fast paced cutting edge software development startup where the egos ran high. We worked hard and played hard. We also prided ourselves on how much verbal abuse we could withstand. When I look back now, I realise that it was absolutely toxic.
Sarah worked in the admin team, she was a sweet young woman who had struggled through her own internal family issues. She was a single mum with a small daughter and an estranged father.
Every morning at the start of the day, we would all congregate on the balcony for a breakfast cigarette. Sarah would come outside with her box of tissues and a bucketful of tears. All of us would snigger and roll our eyes. ‘What’s wrong today?’ we would ask Sarah. Through tears and nose blowing, she would tell us about her latest tearful story, this time the tale might have been about the man driving in front of her who cut her off the road or the coffee barista who was rude to her. Without fail this would be the morning scenario every working day of the week.
At lunch time, back on the balcony, there sat Sarah with her salad, tissues and tears. This time she might be upset with the finance lady who called her out on no sick letter for her day off last Thursday. She would sob and sob then finish her lunch and go back inside.
It will be relative to point out that Sarah was an absolute pleasure to talk to and work with. We laughed, worked hard and enjoyed each other’s company.
Teatime came around and again Sarah would step outside, smoke a cigarette and have a small cry.
It was ongoing banter at the office;
‘Oh look there goes Sarah to cry again.’
‘How can she not keep her feelings to herself?’
‘She really needs to harden up and stop being so emotional.’
Now that I look back on this after spending time on my own healing, I see a very different picture.
I see a woman who worked out early on in life that the self-soothing act of crying allowed her to deal with some deep issues and be able to continue without holding on internally. I see someone who used her own tears to help her navigate through life’s many obstacles.
I am pretty sure Sarah went home each evening and slept like a baby, unlike the rest of the office, who tossed and turned and fretted about the toxicity of the day.
The part of our nervous system called the autonomic nervous system is like the control room for our organs, here we find the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for your Flight and Fight and Rest and Relax state.
When we feel threatened such as an issue at home, unpaid bills or problems at work, then our body and mind says ‘hey, we are about to get attacked by an alligator, all hands on deck, lets switch on the sympathetic nervous system and let’s get this show into fight or flight.’ Your pupils dilate so you can see the predator better, your heart rate rises ready for attack, your muscles tense so that you can fight, your blood pressure goes up and you are in full action.
Rest and Relax state is the parasympathetic nervous system where your body and mind say ‘oh look the danger is gone, we have not been eaten by an alligator. We can chill.’ Your blood pressure drops, your heart rate lowers, the threat is gone, you feel calmer and more at ease and your breathing is slower and more controlled.
If we watch this play out in the animal kingdom, you will see a lion run after a zebra, when the zebra manages to get away, they look around and make sure that the lion is not hiding anywhere and they give their body a quick shake, this helps the body adjust out of Fight or Fight and into a Rest or Relax state. Unfortunately, we humans do not have the ability to just shake off the Fight of Flight.
Due to adult life in general, the hustle and grind culture, and our belief that the constant state of busy is a sign of power, we spend most of our time in Fight or flight and very little in Rest and Relax. This plays havoc on our health and mental wellbeing.
So how do we learn to activate Rest and Relax?
The obvious is calming activities like a walk in nature, meditation, yoga. And others like laughter, dancing and being around good friends are all great ways. And here is where we bring Sarah back into the story, a good cry is marvelous for our parasympathetic nervous system.
How many times have you cried and then said after, wow I feel so much better now? Crying and our tear ducts activate the para sympathetic nervous system. It calms us. Emotional tears contain hormones and a natural opiate pain reliever. Crying releases and flushes toxic stress hormones from the body which calms and soothes.
So there you have it, Sarah was onto something.
Many of us consider crying as a weakness, we have been told from childhood to hold back the tears, that crying is for babies. Some people consider crying to be a sign of manipulation and accuse people of using crocodile tears to get their way. In most cases we consider ourselves to have failed because we cannot hold it together enough not to cry.
The first time I deeply cried was in my forties at a ceremony which focused on opening the heart and releasing trauma. I cried for the young child who was bullied, I cried for the grief at losing my loved ones, I cried for the people who I loved too much and I cried for all the times that I did not speak and all the times that no one listened when I said no. I cried and cried until I thought I would drown in my own tears. And damn it felt so good.
I don’t feel ashamed to cry anymore, it is no more a weakness, it is now part of the tools I use to help heal and soothe myself from pain. I acknowledge that I am human, and that I have emotions and I allow myself to feel them. I am learning that it is okay to be vulnerable and I let my tears flow as a reminder of that.
Let us all be a bit more like Sarah and a lot less like the super hero we think we need to be.