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Us Brits are known for our stiff upper lips but evidence shows bursting into tears can reduce stress and help us cope with common illnesses…
STATISTICS show women do it an average of 47 times a year and men just seven. However in the interests of our bodies, should we all be treating ourselves to a good cry more frequently?
Shedding tears is much more than a simple reaction to stress, trauma and upset. It can also play a crucial part in keeping our emotional and physical wellbeing intact. Studies suggest a sob from time to time can have beneficial effects ranging from the obvious, such as easing stress, to the unexpected such as helping us cope with allergies.
“Many people feel ‘cleansed’ after a good cry,” says Professor Gail Kinman, an occupational health psychologist at the University of Bedfordshire. “Many women say they often feel like a good cry, not because something bad has happened but as a form of therapy.”
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According to Professor Kinman, crying is a valuable way of relieving stress and tension that might otherwise have long-term harmful effects on the body.
“We cannot sustain strong emotions for very long and have to dampen them somehow. A good cry is a great way of doing that. We British have always been fairly stiff upper-lipped. We are judged by the extent to which we hold ourselves together, even at funerals. Those in Mediterranean countries, on the other hand, are much more likely to cry, even the men.”
Our eyes release three different types of tears. Basal tears are made up of the liquid that is constantly present in the eye. This thin film of liquid supplies the cornea (which is the transparent front part of the eye) with oxygen and lubricates the eyeball.
Reflex tears are similar and result from excess liquid building up in the eye in response to an irritant, such as onion vapours.
Emotional tears are shed due to grief, anger, happiness or pain and have an entirely different chemical make-up.“Emotional tears contain hormones and chemicals released by the body which can make you feel better afterwards,” says Dr Susan Blakeney, from The College of Optometrists.So how exactly does crying benefit us and can it help us cope with common illnesses that can shorten our lives?
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High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart attacks and strokes but could crying help to control it?
Studies suggest tears contain cortisol, a hormone released by the body when it is under stress. Occasional increases in cortisol do little harm but sustained exposure to raised levels can drive up blood pressure.
The combined effect of releasing cortisol from the body and the calming effect of a good cry is thought to help lower blood-pressure readings.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a painful and incurable condition that affects around 350,000 people in the UK.
However according to Japanese researchers sufferers who cry more may have fewer symptoms than those that remain stoical in the face of the crippling disease.
Volunteers who were moved to tears easily during a stress-test had lower levels of arthritis-related hormones and chemicals in their blood than those who held back the tears.
Shedding a few tears can even help the body cope with allergies, according to another Japanese study. Doctors tested 60 patients with eczema and an allergy to latex, a common feature in many people who suffer with the skin condition, and made them watch a weather forecast, followed by the famous tear-jerker movie Kramer vs Kramer, in which an estranged couple feud over custody of their only child.The weather report produced no tears and had no effect on their response to latex.
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However the film made 44 of the 60 cry and, crucially, this dampened down their allergic response to latex during subsequent tests.
“Tears are necessary to give you good vision, to keep the eye healthy and to protect it from irritants,” says Dr Blakeney.
They reduce the ability of bacteria to stick to the surface of the eye and also contain antibiotic proteins that help destroy any bugs that try to infect the eye.
The lubricant effect of basal tears, the kind that coat the eye in fluid all the time, means the movement of the eyelid as it opens and shuts does not cause friction damage.
One of the chemicals found in “emotional” tears is a hormone called prolactin.It plays an important part in stimulating milk production in pregnant women, who tend to produce much more of it when they are expecting.
However if the body continues to produce excess amounts after the birth it can cause headaches and halt monthly periods. Shedding unwanted prolactin through tears may reduce this risk.
When it comes to contracting infections the eyes, ears, nose and mouth are all major entry points for bacteria and viruses.
Yet according to a study at the University of Florida, tears contain substances called lysozymes which help to kill off invading organisms. So shedding tears is like coating the face in a mini defence shield.
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