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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

What's With the Tears, for Crying Out Loud?

March 10, 1997|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Runner Nadezhda Ilyina of Russia sobs in agony after being disqualified from the L.A. Marathon despite finishing first.

Country singer LeAnn Rimes cries as she accepts two Grammy Awards.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin weeps during his eulogy to senior leader Deng Xiaoping.

Any time one of our emotions crosses the intensity threshold, it can uncork a cascade of tears.

Why do we cry?

Crying is an emotional safety valve that may release harmful stress, researchers say, and can serve as a wake-up call from psyche to conscious mind. Simply being in the presence of someone crying can bring tears to our own eyes--or send us running in the other direction.

"Crying is triggered by any kind of emotional stress," says William H. Frey II, the guru of cryology and director of Health Partners Dry Eye and Tear Research Center in St. Paul, Minn.

Most often, Frey says, our tears are caused by sadness, while 20% are triggered by happiness and 15% by anger or other emotions. "It is not so much the feeling as the emotional level that triggers it."

Research shows that 85% of women and 73% of men report feeling better after they cry--but some people feel even worse.

"People who have a need to feel in control may experience crying as uncomfortable and not so much as a release because it makes them too self-conscious," says Barry Schlosser, a Norwalk, Conn., psychologist.

In any case, the psychotherapeutic view is that a good cry is good for you.

"It often means that a person is accepting something that they haven't accepted in the past," says Randall Martin, a psychologist at Northern Illinois University. "It often signifies giving up a fight or struggle. Sometimes we don't know how we feel about something until we start crying."

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More than any other behavior, crying makes us vulnerable and evokes a variety of responses.

The boss who gets flustered when an employee bursts into tears "is orienting to what is going on, asking: What does this mean? and What do I have to do about it?" says Schlosser. Adds Frey, no one wants to think of himself "as the mean taskmaster who brings someone to tears."

Crying certainly worked for Lucille Ball's character on "I Love Lucy," whose tearful "Waaaaahhhhh!" never failed to make Ricky cave.

But crying derailed Edmund Muskie's 1972 presidential aspirations. His poll numbers plunged after he publicly shed tears over a critical news report regarding his wife.

Today, just a generation later, President Clinton feels other people's pain so deeply that he regularly bites his lower lip and tears up, getting points for being a feeling president. Even former Sen. Bob Dole openly sniffled during last year's presidential race, which the Wall Street Journal dubbed the "weepiest on record."

According to Frey, women cry about four times as often as men, averaging about five times a month. Women are also more likely to cry when angry, while anger inhibits crying in men--who grow aggressive. About 6% of women and 45% of men say they don't cry at all. Sobbing occurs only once in every dozen crying episodes among both men and women.

Should guys worry that crying makes them look like wimps? No, Martin says. Women like it when men cry--at least theoretically.

In a research setting, "College women who observe a man crying or tearful say they find him more appealing than guys who don't cry," Martin says. "But that is in the lab."

Out in the real world, it's hard to say how Sensitive Man might fare.

Humans probably started crying about 150,000 years ago, Frey says, about the time modern man evolved (maybe he had his first good cry over a cave-keeping tiff with modern woman).

It may have survived as an adaptive trait in humans because it helped us cope with a steady load of stress. Some studies of tree shrews suggest excessive levels of stress can damage brain cells, while other studies, on humans, suggests that emotional stress (such as the death of loved one) puts us at a greater risk of heart attacks.

An old Yiddish proverb put it this way: "Weeping makes the heart grow lighter."

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