Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 12, 2024

More "best medicine"

Often just before going to sleep, husband Art or I will ask how the other is doing. A while back, Art's response was a somewhat middling "Pretty good." He knows that sort of answer will play into my sense of curiosity, making it hard to resist asking what's wrong.

It worked, but his answer surprised me.

He pointed out I had been a bit "bitchy" lately, was complaining about having trouble sleeping, and didn't generally appear to be a very "happy camper." He ended with, "So what's going on?"

After 30-plus years together, he usually knows when Im a little off, but sometimes isn't sure of the reason.

In retrospect, my answer was somewhat funny. I had begun several projects and was making unusual progress on all of them. Yet with a trip coming up, I was afraid of not being able to finish them and so, I began to press. It suddenly occurred to me that few of them were of the have-to-get-done types. This meant I was working so hard on fun things that I was eliminating the fun!

The silliness of the situation wasn't clear until I attempted to answer Art's question. I could feel the tension dissipating and I began to cry softly. After, I had one of the most restful sleeps Id had in days.

While that incident involved matters of little importance, the ones created by life-changing events are more intense versions. When first husband Jerome died shortly after we learned we were to become parents, I was beside myself. I cried frequently, and I truly feel the support extended by family and friends at those times was crucial in keeping me going.

But crying isn't just for bad times. We often see it at awards shows, weddings, births, and other happy events.

Our culture tends to discourage crying, seeing it as a sign of weakness. Yet most therapists encourage it, with some believing it is a tool to help resolve emotional issues.

What we know about crying is far less than what we don't know. We are familiar with some of the changes that take place in the body when a person cries - increased breathing rate, tears, body shaking, unusual facial expressions, increased brain activity and so on. But we don't even know which is the chicken and which is the egg. Do these changes in our body precipitate the crying, or does the crying initiate the physical changes?

We know that sometimes crying is actually a call for comfort, as when a baby is separated from a parent. But why, then, do people cry when there is no one around who could extend comfort?

Most of my crying experiences are cathartic. Being an introvert, I tend to bottle emotions inside, and the release typically associated with crying does me a world of good.

Many romance comedies follow the tried-and-true formula involving some misunderstanding between the couple, creating tension. That will be sorted near the end and everyone lives happily ever after. The "sorting" often involves crying, but the critical element leading to feeling better is the removal of the conflict and having things be better than they were just before.

But a soldier crying after experiencing the horror of war is unlikely to feel better when the tears stop, as the reality is frequently worse than before the fighting began. Or crying in situations where others are present who withhold comfort or even express disapproval can leave a person feeling far worse after the tear shedding has passed. Rather than feeling relief, profound embarrassment may be the dominant emotion.

Parallels have been drawn between situations of emotional pain and those of physical pain. It has long been known that crying out or cursing does diminish the pain felt by a person who has experienced a physical injury. But I was surprised to find that crying has the same effect - a person is actually less sensitive to discomfort while crying.

Since we wouldn't disparage someone or punish someone who has experienced a physical injury, why would we do it to someone experiencing emotional pain? "First aid" for someone crying is support and comfort, rather than a bandage.

While crying may be the first outward sign that a person is experiencing stress, it is often a sign of coping with it - of addressing that stress by first eliminating the interfering emotions.

When our exchange student arrived in 2005, Art identified some shortcomings in her previous math training. She was determined to overcome them, but the stress of living in a different land, having to speak a different language, making new friends, the absence of old friends and family, and all the rest was sometimes overwhelming.

One day, a teacher found her crying in the women's restroom right after her math class and shared that with the math teacher. Not wanting her to have an unpleasant experience in America, he suggested we remove her from the class. Fortunately, we knew that crying was a tool she used, perhaps unconsciously, to help handle her own emotions. It wasn't a bad thing, but a good one. She completed the class with an above-average grade and did even better the following semester.

Few generalizations can be made about crying, but it has been suggested that just as a scab is the sign of a physical wound healing, crying may be the sign of the same process for an emotional wound. Support and comfort, perhaps involving nothing more than being there, for someone crying virtually always has a positive effect, while displaying embarrassment or unease has an impact similar to criticism.

Life often presents situations that create unhelpful emotions. While it is said that laughter is the best medicine, there is something to be said for a good cry.

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