Most of us experience some sort of stress on a daily basis.
Maybe we get stuck in traffic, or experience a disagreement with a co-worker. Maybe our kids are running wild when we get home, and we’re struggling to keep the peace and put dinner on the table. Maybe we’re dealing with an illness.
Our bodies respond to stress in a predictable way, releasing stress hormones, including cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. These send us into what is sometimes called the “fight, flight or freeze” state — essentially amping us up to confront whatever stressful situation is in front of us.
Our bodies don’t distinguish between different causes of stress. The sympathetic nervous system, which controls the stress response, releases stress hormones regardless of whether the stress is minor or major. That’s why little stressors can feel like such a big deal in the moment. We might get really upset if someone cuts us off on the Beltway or if our sports team loses a game. We know these things don’t actually matter, but they sure feel like they do. It’s the same reason that veterans, or other people who have experienced serious stressors or trauma, can sometimes feel so triggered by something like an unexpected loud noise. That little stress reminds their bodies of past, bigger stresses.
Sometimes, we have trouble letting go of stress.
Just as our sympathetic nervous system amps us up, our parasympathetic nervous system is designed to calm us down, and bring our bodies out of the fight, flight or freeze state. However, this doesn’t always happen. We can get stuck in the stress, unable to process and move through what we’re feeling.
Crying is one way to process and release stress.
We might not always feel comfortable crying. Men have typically been discouraged from doing so, and many women might not feel good about crying either. Many of us have been taught to respond to someone crying by saying things like “there there, it’s okay, you don’t need to cry.” But crying is a great way to get stress out!
When we allow ourselves to cry, some of the stress hormones that have built up inside us may actually come out in the tears. Studies have shown tears can contain multiple stress hormones, and are essentially washing the stress hormones out of our bodies. This is why a good cry can feel so, well, good! I often feel like I’ve let go of a burden when I’m done.
A caveat: letting yourself cry as an adult is a wonderful thing. If you have a baby or small child and you hear them crying, be sure to comfort them. When babies are left on their own to “cry it out,” they just become more stressed. Babies cry specifically because it gets our attention--and when they do, they need to be soothed!
Next time you’re feeling stressed, if you get a chance to cry, go for it! It’ll help your mind and body relax and move into a more peaceful state.