Article Thumbnail

Should You Be Concerned About Your Physical Health If You Can’t Remember the Last Time You Cried?

You can hit the treadmill as much as you want, but ignoring your emotions will eventually come back to bite you

In a recently published conversation with Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins, seasoned Hollywood hunk Brad Pitt conceded to being a tearless man for an astonishingly long period of time. “I hadn’t cried in, like, 20 years,” Pitt revealed. But as an older and wiser man, things have changed for Pitt and his tear ducts. “Now I find myself, at this latter stage, much more moved — moved by my kids, moved by friends, moved by the news. Just moved. I think it’s a good sign. I don’t know where it’s going, but I think it’s a good sign.”

Indeed, much of what we hear about crying suggests that allowing tears to flow when the pressure builds, rather than holding them in, is a good sign — and frankly, there are plenty of reasons to cry nowadays. Yet, Pitt is no anomaly. If anything, he’s one humble example of many modern men, who are just now learning to acknowledge and announce their emotions. On a grand scale, it’s still a work in progress, of course: Research performed in the Netherlands found that women — who are consistently functioning at higher levels of emotional intelligence — cry 30 to 64 times a year on average, whereas men only cry between six and 17 times per year.

We know why men, for so, so long, have refused to cry. “Unfortunately, men — especially sensitive and empathetic men, who I tend to focus on and write about in my books — they get called crybabies, they get bullied in school, they get put down for not being a man,” says psychiatrist Judith Orloff, author of The Empath’s Survival Guide, Thriving as an Empath and Emotional Freedom. Besides being an outward display of emotions and perhaps a means of working through our troubles, though, how important is crying for being a healthy, functional human being — and how concerned should you be if you, like Pitt, have had dry eyes for far too long? 

That depends on your baseline for both healthy and functioning.

On an extremely literal end of the spectrum, tears are an essential component of general eye maintenance. “Tears are necessary for maintaining the health of the front surface of the eye and for providing clear vision,” reiterates optometrist Barbara Horn, president of the American Optometric Association. “They provide lubrication, reduce the risk of eye infection, wash away foreign matter in the eye and keep the surface of the eyes smooth and clear.”

“People with dry eyes,” Horn continues, “may experience irritated, gritty, scratchy or burning eyes; a feeling of something in their eyes; excess watering; and blurred vision. Advanced dry eyes may damage the front surface of the eye and impair vision.”

Whether you have emotional outbursts of crying or not, though, your body should naturally produce enough tears to keep your eyes lubricated and wash away any dangerous foreign bodies. So, in that sense, actively crying simply isn’t a necessary aspect of your eye health.

However, the tears that we cry when faced with grief or stress seem to release a number of hormones and other chemicals that can translate into real, physical changes. “When you cry emotional tears, it expels stress hormones, so it allows you to release stress in ways that you couldn’t otherwise,” Orloff explains. “It also stimulates endorphins, which are blissful neurochemicals, the painkillers in the body.” Moreover, crying arouses the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with relaxation, recovery and growth, and as we know, stress is quite literally a killer, so that, combined with the relaxing hormones released while shedding tears, could actually extend your life.

Similarly, because crying has a soothing effect on the body that allows us to move on from unfortunate events, not allowing yourself to cry can keep you stuck in an emotional snowglobe, which can then snowball into real, damaging ailments. “It can translate into everything from chronic fatigue to depression to back pain to headaches,” Orloff says. “The body gets backed up, essentially.” According to studies, crying also rallies support from anyone who witnesses you doing so, hence the reason group crying meditation is a thing, and having people around you who care can go a long way when it comes to keeping you mentally and physically sharp.

Now, I should note that, scientifically speaking, crying is a complex subject. Many studies, even those linked above, go back and forth on what causes the real, physical impact of opening your own personal levees. But we all know, anecdotally, that — particularly when the crying is combined with a reckoning of your emotions and the events that caused them — the impact is there, and really, that’s all that matters.

In the end, none of this is to say that you might as well be on your deathbed if, like Pitt, you can’t remember the last time you cried. “People survive it all the time,” Orloff says, “but you have to imagine what it would be like to have your body functioning at a higher level, one that allows for tears.”

So, if you’ve fallen on hard times and feel a rush of water building up behind your eyeballs, take a lesson from the new Pitt and allow yourself to let it out. “I was so excited to hear that Brad Pitt cried,” says Orloff. “People listen to celebrities, and if he cried, maybe some other men out there will be given permission to cry, too.”