“Heavy hearts, like heavy clouds in the sky, are best relieved by the letting of a little water,” the 18th-century French writer Antoine de Rivarol wrote.
This love letter to the cleansing beauty of a good cry is a comforting thought at a time when the sustained stress of the pandemic has added heaviness to each of our lives.
Scientifically, de Rivarol’s poetic image doesn’t actually, if you’ll forgive the pun, hold water. There’s limited research on crying, partly because of the difficulty of replicating authentic crying in a laboratory setting. But even within the studies that have been done, there’s little evidence to suggest that crying provides a physiological flushing or cleansing of toxins.
Psychologists do believe the release and relief of a good cry connects with a different emotional process. “It seems that crying occurs just . . . after the peak of the emotional experience, and crying is associated with this return to homeostasis,” Lauren Bylsma recently told The Washington Post.
Bylsma also said holding back tears can have negative physical consequences, including headaches and muscle tension. Such restraint can also limit our experiences of joy, gratitude and other positive emotions if we avoid acknowledging our feelings.
For me, crying has been easier said than done during the pandemic. Psychologists say it is normal to feel “stopped up” by the chronic, cumulative stresses of the past year. We should seek out opportunities to release and process our emotions—without forcing tears that just aren’t ready to come.
Watching a tear-jerking movie, having an emotional conversation with a close, trusted friend, writing in a journal or talking with a therapist are healthy ways to elicit a cry.
Physical activity like brisk walking or even dancing can also signal our bodies to release some emotional tightness. We can then open up to the flow of feelings that leave us feeling lighter and refreshed—like a clear sky after a soaking rain.