Connecting in Times of Crisis: Crying

Crying is not a sign of weakness, it’s a signal that you have deep feelings to share.

“I’m here.” “It’s okay to cry.” “Let it out.” Crying is good. When we fully express our feelings, something marvelous happens: our bodies relax. We breathe deeply, we let go of tension, and a calm comes over us. There is tremendous relief available to us in sharing our tears with each other.

Then why do we often jump to, “Don’t cry! Everything’s okay,” or stop ourselves from crying? It can be upsetting to watch someone we love cry, so of course we want to help. Especially now, when we are navigating so much emotion.

Crying is not a sign of weakness, it’s a signal that you have deep feelings to share.

The Nurture Science Program (NSP) has uncovered seven evidence-based connecting activities that help us build and sustain emotional connection. Last week, we talked about upset. In this post, we take a closer look at crying.

Crying is an important part of the physiology of feelings. It’s how babies communicate their needs: to be fed, cleaned, or comforted (by touch, smell, milk, or voice). But even as we grow up and develop language, crying remains a powerful and valid form of expression.

All emotions have survival value, even the ones we’ve been taught to think of as “negative.” We need to understand what’s behind the negative emotions, in order to get the message they’re trying to send us and free up our access to our positive feelings. Crying can come from positive emotion, too, and these tears of joy also need to be shared. If we cut ourselves off from either kind of crying, we miss the opportunity to connect.

When we cry with deep emotion, it automatically evokes gut feelings of empathy in the other person.  The deep belly breaths of crying also activate the parasympathetic nervous system (which helps you recover from stress), regulating your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. This combination of empathy and autonomic co-calming puts your bodies in sync: an important step towards coming together.

Today’s tip: Crying is a cue to connect

  • If someone is crying, stay with them and give them your full attention.
  • If you’re crying and you’re alone, connect with someone or something that helps you plug into your senses (the quilt your grandmother made you, or a shirt that smells like your partner).
  • Let yourself breathe deeply, even if it makes you cry more.
  • If you’re being cried to, let the person know you’re with them, and listening. If crying comes up for you, too, let yourselves cry together. Reciprocal emotional expression is the key to emotional connection.
  • Only offer a remedy if they want one. More often than not, being heard is more important than advice.
  • Allow space for deep feelings to be expressed. It may take five minutes for someone to feel relief, or it may take an hour and a half. Talking may be a part of the expression, or it may not.
  • Sit with each other until the flood of emotions subsides, and both of you naturally calm.

Sometimes, engaging with other activities of connection will elicit crying, and that’s good: crying allows us to use all of the skills we’ve talked about in this series to express deep feelings. You can hold each other, or offer a hand; you can smell the other person’s familiar, calming scent. When you are ready, you can talk  and listen to each other, and look into each other’s eyes. By connecting, especially when we are deeply upset, we can calm each other, and get through the most difficult times together.

Let’s take care of each other,

Martha G. Welch, MD, DFAPA
Director, Columbia Nurture Science Program

1 Comment

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