The health benefits of having a ‘good cry,’ explained by a psychologist

Those sad movies you sometimes crave? They can be a necessary release … especially if you grew up hearing the phrase, “big girls don’t cry.”

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You’ve had a stressful week. So you get on your comfiest pajamas, grab a to-go order of your favorite foods, and turn on the television. You search for a sad movie to watch. Then you make sure the box of tissues is handy, grab a soft blanket, and settle in for a nice long cry: Let the tears fall where they may. After the movie ends and you’ve dried your tears, you feel tired, but calm. It’s pretty much the textbook definition of what we like to call a “good cry.”

I’m no stranger to the good cry. But that little oxymoron of a phrase brings up a larger question for me, too: Why does it feel good to cry sometimes? And if it feels right to cry in some scenarios, why do may of us feel uncomfortable with our tears once we’re off the couch, and out in the real world? Why do we apologize for crying in public? It leaves me feeling like tears caused by sad movie—when we cry for others—are OK, but personal tears that are born from emotional triggers in everyday life are something to be ashamed of … So are those bad cries (if there is such a thing)?

In order to find out the answers to these questions, I decided to do a little digging.

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A sign of strength

The first problem is that in much of society today, we think tears denote weakness. Probably because tears can signal to others that you are in need of help or support. Often, we immediately associate crying with children, which may strengthen the notion that crying is for vulnerable and child-like situations only. (Lots of people cheered when new mom Tess Holiday, emotionally and physically exhausted, had the courage to post a photo of herself in tears on Instagram.) But the opposite is actually true: crying is a sign that we are emotionally mature and able to process our feelings correctly. Plus, scientific research provides evidence that tears aren’t just for show or to send out a distress signal: crying can have a cathartic affect.

This is the reality of being a mom. I've been up since 3 am, & every time I get Bowie to sleep & try to lay him down, he wakes up. He is teething & has no clue I have to work today, & most days I can work 15 hour days, take care of both boys & put some lipstick on & deal with it. Most days I drink my coffee & smile at every little thing he does thinking it's the best thing in the world, but not today. I've been crying for nearly two hours, & I'm crying as I write this. I've reached my limit, exceeded it to be honest. My confidence has taken a blow with this birth & it wasn't until this morning I realized why. The pressure of "looking good" for a living is too much today. When your face is breaking out from the hormones of breastfeeding + total exhaustion from lack of sleep, bags under your eyes, patchy red skin & to top it off no energy to work out or leave my bed.. how do you do it? How do you feel confident in your skin & feel like you aren't letting the client down by showing up exhausted & disheveled? Yes, I chose a career based on my looks & I'm the first one to say that beauty isn't what should drive you, it's certainly not what motivates me. As a working mom in an industry that's as critical as mine, where is the line? The balance? The compassion? Is any career understanding when you show up at negative 10% because your kids wouldn't let you sleep & you want to hide under your covers & cry? Not many. I hope one day that changes & society views mothers as the flawed human beings we are that are just trying to keep our shit together like everyone else. #effyourbeautystandards #workingmoms #disruptperfectmomsyndrome

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Erica Martinez, who works as a clinical psychologist and specializes in helping millennials get unstuck in love, work, and life, helps explain this complicated issue: “Some people were trained to hold back the tears since childhood (hearing “big girls don’t cry” and such), but that becomes an unhealthy and incongruent response.” So automatically saying “I’m sorry” when you cry, like many of us do when we feel tears coming on in public, is a type of learned reflex. Maybe you were shamed by authority figures when you cried earlier in life, by the camp counselor or the school teacher who told you to stop crying, “grow up,” or “toughen up.” And, even if we don’t realize it, we can carry those words with us into adulthood.

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Martinez goes on to say: “It’s no wonder they feel empty, lack joy, and are having trouble with relationships: they can’t emote! Therapy can loosen all those blocks.”

Tears can speak louder than words

I can attest to that truth. As a teenager and young adult, I rarely cried. It was as if something held me back from accessing my deepest emotions. In my late 20s, I began experiencing panic attacks and depression, which led me to seek biblical counseling. Suddenly, long pent-up tears began flowing. (I even worried that my eyes would never stop “leaking.”) At first, I was embarrassed. However, the more I cried, the better I felt.

Martinez has observed many similar stories to mine while treating others: “Many times clients are hesitant to cry in a session, which leads to a conversation about what crying means to them and the past messages they associate with it. Crying allows people to physically release feelings which are difficult to articulate verbally. The people who break down take ownership of their emotions. They permit themselves to feel, and they honor their feelings.” That might lead to not just a good cry, but a productive one.

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Good cry vs. bad cry

There is such a thing, however, as bad crying. For instance, the phrase “crocodile tears” refers to insincere expression of sorrow. If we get in the habit of using tears in order to gain something we want, we’ll lose in the long run. Cautions Martinez, “Crying to manipulate circumstances in your favor might work at first, but others will eventually realize they’re being manipulated, and the relationship will suffer.”

Instead of being hypocritical or passive-aggressive, mature people are authentic. They allow themselves to experience the full spectrum of human emotions. Growing up emotionally means listening to our feelings, as well as empathizing with how others feel.

Over several years, my counselors, friend and family members—each of them a gift from above—walked alongside me on my journey, and allowed me to heal. Along the way, my capacity for sadness increased, but so did my capacity for joy. I discovered the truth of a biblical paradox … brokenness can lead to wholeness, when we give our pain an outlet and allow God to enter into the equation.

Dena Dyer
Dena Dyer

Dena’s work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Reader’s Digest, Woman’s World, Family Circle, Redbook, Today’s Christian Woman, and more. She’s also the author or co-author of eight books; her newest release (written with her husband of 21 years) is the humorous devotional book, Love at First Fight: 52 Story-Based Meditations for Married Couples.

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