A patient recently told me that he feels like he needs to cry, but the tears won't come out. It reminded me of an earlier time in my life when I had this same experience. I referred to it as having "frozen tears". I have since dethawed my tears, and I can now cry when I need to (for the most part). Caretakers, culture, and society often teach us when we're young to hold back our tears. This may be because our caregivers aren't able to tolerate our distress; it may leave them feeling helpless or anxious. They may tell us, "Aw, don't cry". In other cases, we are taught that tears are for the weak. This might be especially so for men who are frequently given the message that crying is "for girls" and is not "manly". Hearing these messages in different forms over time can lead to a "freezing" of tears. We become so contricted and afraid to express or even feel our vulnerability. We guard against others and might even cut ourselves off from our own pain.
I was struck one day during my personal period of frozen tears when a patient with chronic schizohrenia living in a state facility abruptly asked me, "Who taught you not to cry?" It dawned on me that I had not cried in ages, even though I sometimes really needed to. By deepening my emotional self-awareness through my yoga practice and work with a psychotherapist, I was over time able to reconnect with my vulnerability and become more comfortable with crying. I must say I remain guarded around others; I usually cry when I'm by myself. There is a lot of conditioning to be unlearned, and it is a work in progress.
I admire one of my close friends who releases her tears when she needs to. She does not allow that emotional energy to fester and wreak havoc on her body and mind. I believe it takes a lot of courage to cry, and especially to cry around other people. My patients almost always apologize for crying in my office, and I let them know it's okay to cry. I try to hold a safe space for them and let it be known that I can tolerate their pain.
The vagus nerve is one of the cranial nerves that plays a vital role in regulating many bodily systems, including cardiac and digestive functions. It is a key player in the stress response. Stimulating the vagus nerve is thought to be an important part of reducing stress, initiating relaxation, and re-regulating many of the body's functions. This can be done through yoga, breathing techniques, vagal nerve stimulation, and several other methods. I recently read that the vagus nerve is also stimulated by laughing and weeping. And so, crying is actually good for you! Given its reported stimulation of the vagus nerve, it literally has the power to alter your physiology by activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which will induce a sense of relaxation and calm. Experientially, I know this to be true as I usually feel a sense of calm relief after a good cry.
So remember, it's okay to cry, despite all the messages you may have received in your lifetime.