Why All the Tears?
WHEN was the last time you had a good cry? Was it from happiness or from grief? Over a personal triumph or a crushing failure? Out of relief or out of frustration? The birth of a child or the death of a spouse, a fond memory or a painful recollection, welcoming a cherished friend or bidding one good-bye? Opposite situations, different feelings, yet often expressed in the very same way—with tears.
Just why do we cry in response to intense emotion? Does it accomplish anything? Or could we do without tears?
Why Do We Cry?
No one is quite sure. Humans and animals produce two kinds of tears: Basal, or continuous, tears moisten the eye, and reflex tears spring into action when the eye is irritated by some foreign object. But it is the shedding of emotional tears, weeping, that seems to be uniquely human—and little understood.
Researcher William Frey suggests that emotional crying actually relieves the body of harmful and excess substances, much as do kidneys, colon, lungs, and pores. His book Crying—The Mystery of Tears describes his study that compared tears caused by an irritant (an onion) with tears caused by emotions (from watching sad movies). The emotional tears contained higher concentrations of protein—about 24 percent greater. The reason is not yet clear, but evidently the body produces a kind of tear in response to emotion that is different from the kind in response to irritation.
“I am weeping as a woman. My eye, my eye is running down with waters,” wrote the prophet Jeremiah. (Lamentations 1:16) Do women truly weep more than men? Statistically they do—about four times as often (5.3 times a month versus 1.4 for men). According to Frey, in infancy boys and girls cry about the same amount, though it may be days or weeks from birth before a baby will shed tears of emotion. In the teenage years, however, the difference begins to develop. This might be due to social influences. But the hormone prolactin (the milk-producing stimulant) is equally present in youngsters of both genders until the teen years. Somewhere between ages 13 and 16, the level rises in females.
Prolactin is found in tears. It also builds up in the body under stress. Hence, women would be subject to even greater levels of the hormone than men when stressed. Could this be why women cry more easily and frequently than men? Dr. Frey believes that emotional crying is the body’s effort to regain chemical balance. The hormones may actually stimulate crying, and he theorizes that this is why we often feel better after we cry.
Another study, by psychotherapist Margaret Crepeau, found a link between holding back crying and a “significantly higher rate of stress-related internal disorders like ulcers and colitis.” (Seventeen, May 1990) Other researchers found evidence to the contrary. Health magazine reports that Drs. Susan Labott and Randall Martin examined frequent criers and infrequent criers. Their findings showed that stress was not lessened by weeping and that more frequent criers “were more prone to anxiety and depression.” Their conclusion is that crying is not useful when it “merely distracts us from the problem.” However, weeping can be an important part of accepting a traumatic experience, for example, the death of a loved one.
Suffice it to say, the cause and purpose of emotional tears remains elusive.
The Other Tears
We know much more about the function of continuous tears, the ones you have in your eyes right now. They do much more than water your eyes. Let’s chart the course of this marvelous fluid as it is produced, spread, and expelled through the lacrimal system.
The main tear gland is found in the depression just above the outer corner of your eye. This spongy gland, along with 60 others, creates a precision film made up of three layers—mucous, aqueous, and oil.
The inner layer, the mucous, makes a smooth surface so the lid glides across the exposed eyeball. The aqueous layer is the thickest of the three, containing many important ingredients including oxygen, vital to the cornea. Also add a dose of lysozyme and 11 other enzymes found in tears. Lysozyme is a bacteria fighter par excellence. It keeps the eye white and clear.
The finishing touches on this tear will be supplied by 30 Meibomian glands, those little yellow dots lining both lids in single file behind the lashes. The glands secrete the oil layer, so thin that it doesn’t distort your vision, yet keeps the tear film from evaporating and causing uncomfortable dry spots on the eye between blinks. In fact, some people have an inadequate supply of oil, and their tears evaporate much faster than normal.
In the Blink of an Eye
So here comes the lid, sweeping down in a flash, drawing out just the right blend of ingredients, and spreading them evenly across the eye in three layers. The lids meet perfectly so that the entire surface of the exposed eye is bathed in this soothing wash.
What happens to the used tears? A close look at your eye will show a tiny hole in the inner corner, the punctum, that drains the excess tears into a channel leading to the tear sac. From there the tears pass down the back of the nose and throat, where the tears are absorbed by the mucous membranes. Blinking causes the tear sac to act like a pump, which propels the tears into the canal and downward.
When you start to cry, you may instinctively blink faster, operating that pump faster to carry away those excess tears. However, when a real flood of tears begins, the pump overloads, the tear sac in the nasal cavity overflows, and your nose runs with tears. And you might as well reach for your handkerchief because by now the rest of the tears just spill over the lids and down the cheeks.
So whatever prompts them—a heartfelt compliment or a stinging insult, fits of laughter or bouts of depression, a crowning success or a keen disappointment—a ready supply of tears waits to speak your feelings.
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Help for Red Eyes
You have had that burning, gritty feeling in your eyes only too often. What causes it? Red eyes occur when the blood vessels in the membrane over the white of the eye become dilated.
A shortage of tears may be the culprit. People who work long hours at a video display terminal or with the printed page just don’t blink enough. Normal blink rate is about 15 times a minute. When reading, driving, or otherwise concentrating, the rate may slow to from three to six times a minute, causing dryness and irritation. Doctors recommend taking so-called blink breaks and using eyedrops to soothe the eyes.
Upon awaking you will notice some redness because tearing action is greatly reduced in the dark and during sleep.
Certain medications may cause slowing of the tear glands, as does the aging process. Infection or swelling of the lids due to allergies, climate extremes, or pollutants may cause redness.
Deformity or blockage of the lid or glands due to injury or birth defects might deprive the eye of full coverage with tear film, or the film itself might be unbalanced in composition.
Finally, millions suffer from diseases such as Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the tear, salivary, oil, and other glands, causing dryness of eyes, mouth, and skin.
What can be done about chronic dryness of the eyes? Artificial tears in the form of drops or pellets are now widely available, as are special glasses that form an airtight seal around the eye to slow evaporation. While unpleasant, these conditions rarely lead to blindness. However, if left untreated, chronic dryness can cause damage to the cornea, so it is important to seek medical advice.
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“Do Put My Tears in Your Skin Bottle”
So wrote the psalmist David, entreating his God to look upon his deep distress. (Psalm 56:8) Yes, heartrending situations even in the lives of faithful servants of God have prompted weeping.
Imagine King David’s tearful anguish over the deaths of his sons Amnon and Absalom and his loyal friend Jonathan, as well as King Saul. (2 Samuel 1:11, 12; 13:29, 36; 18:33) When the Amalekites plundered the city of Ziklag and kidnapped the wives and children of David and his mighty men, they “began to raise their voice and weep, until there was in them no power to weep anymore.”—1 Samuel 30:4.
Great must have been the mourning when Jacob and Moses died, over whom entire nations wept for days. (Genesis 50:3; Deuteronomy 34:8) Captivity and affliction have also brought cries of distress to the ears of Jehovah. (Job 3:24; Psalm 137:1; Ecclesiastes 4:1) The entire Bible book of Lamentations is a mournful dirge penned by the tearful Jeremiah.—Lamentations 1:16; 2:11, 18; see La 1:1, footnote.
Far from being a sign of weakness, weeping is a natural expression of strong emotion. Thus, even the perfect man Jesus was moved to tears. Once he wept over the city of Jerusalem and again at seeing the bereaved family and friends of the dead Lazarus. (Luke 19:41; John 11:33-35) Those tears of sorrow by family and friends, however, were soon changed to tears of joy when Jesus called forth his beloved friend from the tomb.—John 11:41-44.