Why crying is a good thing

December 18, 2009

“There is a sacredness in tears.  They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.  They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.  They are messengers of overwhelming grief and unspeakable love.”   –Washington Irving

Biochemist William Frey has spent 15 years studying tears and why we cry.  His team of scientists have found that, although tear production organs were once thought to be unimportant and no longer necessary for survival, tears actually have numerous critical functions.

Tears are an emotional response which only humans have, for only people are known to weep.  While all animals that live in air produce tears to lubricate their eyes, only human beings possess the extensive system that causes us to cry.

Tears are secreted by your lacrimals—tiny, sponge-like glands which rest above the eye against the eye socket. The average person blinks every two to ten seconds. With every blink, the eyelid carries this fluid over your eye’s surface.

One of the most obvious functions of tears is to lubricate your eyeball and eyelid, but they also prevent dehydration of your various mucous membranes, as anyone with ‘dry eye’ problems can attest to.  A severe lack of lubrication produces a condition requiring medication or therapy to save the victim’s eyesight.

Another important function of tears is that they bathe your eyes in lysozyme, one of the most effective antibacterial and antiviral agents known to man.  Amazingly, lysozyme inactivates 90 to 95 per cent of all bacteria in a mere five to 10 minutes. Without it,  eye infections would be much more common and serious.

One amazing discovery is that tear production may actually aid a person in dealing with emotional problems.  Scientific studies have found that after crying, most people do feel better,  and those that suppress their tears do feel worse.

Not unexpectedly, those who suffer from the inherited disease familial dysautonomia not only cannot cry tears, but also have a lesser ability to deal with stressful events in their lives.

In a recent study, tears caused by simple irritants were compared to those brought on by emotion.  Researchers found that stress-induced tears actually remove toxic substances from the body. Volunteers were led to cry first from watching sad movies, and then from freshly cut onions. The researchers found that the tears from the movies contained far more toxic biological byproducts. Weeping, they concluded, is an excretory process which removes toxic substances that normally build up during emotional stress.

The simple act of crying also reduces the body’s manganese level, a mineral which affects mood and is found in up to 30 times greater concentration in tears than in blood serum. They also found that emotional tears contain 24 per cent higher albumin protein concentration than tears caused by eye irritants.

The researchers concluded that chemicals built up by the body during stress were removed by tears, which actually lowered stress. These include the endorphin leucine-enkephalin, which helps to control pain, and prolactin, a hormone which regulates milk production in mammals.

They found that one of the most important of those compounds which removed tears was adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), one of the best indicators of stress.  Suppressing tears increases stress levels, and contributes to diseases aggravated by stress, such as high blood pressure, heart problems and peptic ulcers.

Ashley Montagu concluded that weeping contributes not only to the health of the individual, but also to the group’s sense of community because ‘it tends to deepen involvement in the welfare of others’. Tears are an extremely effective method of communication, and can elicit sympathy much faster than any other means. They effectively relate that you are sincere about a certain concern, and anxious to deal with the problem.

What can we learn from all this? That the seemingly simple and common response of producing tears is enormously complex and, indeed, is an integral and necessary part of being human.  Without tears, life would be drastically different for humans—in the short run enormously uncomfortable, and in the long run our eyesight could be jeopardized.


Do we “deserve” everything that happens to us?

September 11, 2009

I received another rejection notice from MORE MAGAZINE yesterday.  I pitched them a story about how others have dealt with their midlife difficulties and learned and grown from them.

I go back and forth in my relationship with the mainstream media.  Mostly I’ve decided that it is just too dysfunctional to bother with.  They seem to insist on covering only celebrities, how to lose weight, how to perfect your makeup, and other types of earth shattering news.  They insist on maintaining a pathologically optimistic attitude, never admitting that life is really tough sometimes, and how do we deal with that?

It reminds me of a conversation I overheard yesterday between two elders who both agreed that we should just wait a few more years before we change health care, because we don’t quite have it right yet.

I could not contain myself.  I burst in with, “While we tinker with the system, thousands of Americans are  dying for the lack of health care.  I know you both have Medicare, but the rest of us are completely screwed if we lose our job!”

It seems most Americans have a colossal case of:

My life is fine, so screw you!

I also used to feel so self-satisfied and complacent.  I had my little job and my life and thought anyone  who ran into trouble,  simply wasn’t playing by the proper rules.  Then I lost my job and could not find another no matter what.

No more health insurance, no more money and eventually no more home!  If I had had my bike accident (Traumatic Brain Injury) while I was uninsured, I definitely would have lost my house!  And I wouldn’t have been able to work because of my brain injury.

HELLO!  Completely unpredictable things happen to each of us all the time!  It’s nobody’s fault when you get cancer or have a terrible accident, and these things do happen to everybody, regardless of whether we  “deserve” them.

Perhaps it has to do with the unforgiving nature of some brands of Christianity.  You know, the old belief that if bad things happen to you, you are probably being punished for your sins.  I ran into this often in the rehab hospital where I did my counseling internship.  Especially the elderly would sit and wonder out loud, “What did I do to deserve this?”

News flash!  We all get sick, get injured, and we will all have to die, no matter how good or bad we have been in our life.  It sure would be nice if we accepted these facts and then decided to offer proper health care to our fellow Americans.  I feel certain that the richest country in the world can afford universal health care, if we ALL decide WE are worth it.

When it comes to a life crisis, women are far more vulnerable than men

August 20, 2009

According to a recent AARP survey, nearly two-thirds of American women age 40 to 79 have experienced long-term job loss, divorce, death of a spouse or a major illness or disability.

When these things happen, women are much more likely than men to take a huge financial hit.  Add to that the fact that women tend to live longer and carry more of the emotional burden in relationships and in a crisis, and we are talking major life stress!

“No one escapes the financial implications of a life crisis, but they are particularly acute for women,” said Richard “Mac” Hisey, President of AARP Financial Inc.

“The demographic considerations are obvious: women outlive men, so they experience more life crises and deal with the consequences longer. But women also tend to be the caregivers. That means women are frequently dealing with the human and logistical consequences of a life crisis, leaving little time and energy for the financial considerations.”

In this particular survey, 65% of women ages 40 to 79 had experienced a major life crisis that significantly impacted their finances.  Survey data revealed that dealing with emotions during times of life crisis is a particular challenge for women.

Three out of five of the women surveyed said that it was hard to keep their emotions in check during a major life event (vs. 46% of men). More than four in ten women (44%) said they had trouble staying focused.

“Life crises are the perfect storms of personal finance — where the need for consequential and frequently urgent financial decisions meets an emotional hurricane,” Hisey said. “This is a critical issue for women.  The vast majority of women will be solely responsible for their finances one day, frequently assuming that responsibility at a time of tremendous personal duress.”

I think they make a very good point with this survey:  “Let’s face it — it’s hard enough to contemplate some of these scenarios, let alone plan for them,”   Hisey said   “At the same time, the reality is this:   sooner or later, you’re going to experience a life crisis.”

That is exactly the point of this blog!  Accept the fact that anything can happen to anyone of us at any time!   I speak from experience!  I lost most of my income when I divorced in 2001.  Then I lost my job two years later.  Make a disaster plan and be sure to put away some savings for the day you hope never arrives!

See why I call myself the Queen of Crisis?

New Research on Women’s Friendships and Longevity

May 25, 2009

It has been my lifelong experience that while friendships with women have always been one of my highest priorities and essential to me on so many different levels, my female friends generally have not valued our time together as highly if their relationships with men or family intrude, as reported near the end of this article.

Here’s some food for thought on that subject:

By Gale Berkowitz

A landmark UCLA study suggests friendships between women are special. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage, and help us remember who we really are.   By the way,   they may do even more.

Scientists now suspect that hanging out with our friends can actually counteract the kind of stomach-quivering stress most of us experience on a daily basis. A landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women.

It’s a stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research—most of it on men—upside down.   “Until this study was published, scientists generally believed that when people experience stress, they trigger a hormonal cascade that revs the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible,” explains Laura Cousino Klein, Ph.D., now an Assistant Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors. “It’s an ancient survival mechanism left over from the time we were chased across the planet by saber-toothed tigers.”

Now the researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just “fight or flight.” “In fact,” says Dr. Klein, “it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in a woman, it buffers the “fight or flight” response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead.

When she actually engages in this tending or befriending,  studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. This calming response does not occur in men”, says Dr. Klein, “because testosterone, which men produce in high levels when they’re under stress, seems to reduce the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen”, she adds, “seems to enhance it.”

The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was made in a classic “aha!” moment shared by two women scientists who were talking one day in a lab at UCLA. “There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in to clean the lab, have coffee, and bond”, says Dr. Klein.  “When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own. I commented one day to fellow researcher Shelley Taylor that nearly 90% of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were onto something.”

The women cleared their schedules and started meeting with one scientist after another from various research specialties. Very quickly, Drs. Klein and Taylor discovered that by not including women in stress research, scientists had made a huge mistake:  The fact that women respond to stress differently than men has significant implications for our health.

It may take some time for new studies to reveal all the ways that oxytocin encourages us to care for children and hang out with other women, but the “tend and befriend” notion developed by Drs. Klein and Taylor may explain why women consistently outlive men. Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. “There’s no doubt,” says Dr. Klein, “that friends are helping us live.”

In one study, for example, researchers found that people who had no friends increased their risk of death over a 6-month period. In another study, those who had the most friends over a 9-year period cut their risk of death by more than 60%.

Friends are also helping us live better. The famed Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded, that not having close friends or confidantes was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight!

And that’s not all! When the researchers looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that even in the face of one of the largest stressor of all, those women who had a close friend were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality. Those without friends were not always so fortunate.

Yet if friends counter the stress that seems to swallow up so much of our life these days, if they keep us healthy and even add years to our life, why is it so hard to find time to be with them? That’s a question that also troubles researcher Ruthellen Josselson, Ph.D., co-author of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls’ and Women’s Friendships.

“Every time we get overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women,” explains Dr. Josselson. “We push them right to the back burner. That’s really a mistake because women are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one another. And we need to have unpressured space in which we can do the special kind of talk that women do when they’re with other women. It’s a very healing experience.”

The Moment I First Believed: A book review

January 8, 2009

Just finished Wally Lamb’s third novel, and what a book it is!  I thoroughly enjoyed She’s come undone by Wally.  Could not believe how well he captured the internal life of an emotionally disturbed, obese young woman in that book!

This new one is the story of the ultimate midlife crisis.  In the midst of dealing with the common midlife issue of burying a beloved aunt who helped to raise him, Caelum Quirk finds himself working in the same school where the Columbine massacre occurred.  He happens to miss that day of  school because of his aunt’s funeral, but his wife Maureen, the school nurse, barely misses annihilation by hiding in a cabinet in the Columbine library.  There she develops a lifelong case of PTSD while listening to the killers shoot a number of her students to death.

To Caelum’s credit, he sticks it out with his damaged wife, moving back to his family farm in Connecticut.  This novel is the story of all he discovers about himself by loving his wife through thick and thin while also learning about his crazy family history in the process.

This is also the story of what violence does to people through time.  The violence others do to us, and the violence we do to ourselves through not acknowledging our own human frailty.

Caelum knows when he returns to the family farm in Connecticut, that there are far too many memories there for him.  His line:  “The place was radioactive with memories” was a standout.

But, to his credit, he stays and works through it all, solving many mysteries about how he came to be.  In the end, he is rewarded with a much better life.  He confronts the crisis instead of trying to run away from it once again.

Though definitely long and very convoluted, this novel is well worth sticking with to the end.

Five things we cannot change

December 29, 2008

five-things-we-cannot-change-for-blogI want to share with you some interesting thoughts from one of my favorite writers!

David Richo wrote the best book I’ve ever read on being with others called:  How to be an adult in relationships. Now he’s written: The five things you cannot change…and the happiness we find by embracing them.

This book starts from the guiding premise that we control very little of what happens to us in life.  One of our major difficulties is discovering how “reality refuses to bow to our commands…all our lives include unexpected twists, unwanted endings, and challenges of every puzzle kind.”

David Richo works as a psychotherapist and has found the same five struggles arise again and again with his clients.  These he calls the five unavoidable givens:

  1. Everything changes and ends.
  2. Things do not always go according to plan.
  3. Life is not always fair.
  4. Pain is part of life.
  5. People are not loving and loyal all the time.

Each of these givens suggest questions about our destiny:

Are we here to get our way or to dance with the flow of life?  Are we here to make sure everything goes according to our plans or to trust the surprises and synchronicities that lead us to new vistas?  Are we here to make sure we get a fair deal or are we here to be upright and loving?  Are we here to avoid pain or to deal with it, grow from it, and learn to be compassionate through it?  Are we here to be loyally loved by everyone or to love with all our might?”

The idea that struck me the strongest in his introduction was the most important given of all: Anything can happen to anyone of us at anytime. Most of us spend a lifetime dancing around this most obvious truth.  We imagine that very good or very bad luck is supposed to happen to other people but never to us.

But when we embrace the fact that anything can happen to us at anytime, we begin to let go of our ego’s privileged view of itself as entitled to special treatment, that some rescuer will come through just for us and grant us exemption from life’s hard knocks.

If  we finally accept that we are the same as everyone else in these basic uncertainties, we become humble and feel a consoling sense of belonging, no matter how difficult life may become.

I think David’s ideas have everything to do with midlife crisis.  For many of us this crisis in the middle of life is our opportunity to feel human and fallible and just like everyone else.  Circumstances change, life becomes confusing, and we must finally accept how out of control our life can be at times, and how fundamentally unsuperior we are in this world of troubled souls.

When I consider the truth: “Things don’t always go according to plan,” I see that my life would be much worse if they had!  I was married to the wrong man and pursuing a career I no longer enjoyed.  If things had gone according to plan, I would not have gotten a divorce, lost my job, and consequently found a life so much more suited to my needs and dreams.

I can highly recommend this thought-provoking book!

The movie “Australia”: The Queen’s Quips

December 8, 2008


I was shocked and disturbed to find the top movie this weekend was “Four Christmases” and “Australia” came in 4th in terms of box office receipts.  I haven’t seen “Four Christmases” and you know how much I love Reese Witherspoon, but “Australia” is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years!  It has classic written all over it!

This film has everything a movie-lover could ever want: romance, action, adventure, history, thrills and suspense, and it is SO BEAUTIFULLY MADE!!! Set in northern Australia in the late 1930s around the town of Darwin and at the Faraway Ranch out in the bush, the story is told from the perspective of  a young “creamy”: half aboriginal, half European kid, who you end up loving.

But there is so much to love about experiencing this transformative journey with these memorable characters, I don’t know where to begin.  I loved the way it intertwines the history of the treatment of aboriginals in Australia with the kid’s story.  I loved all the movement around northern Australia with phenomenal panoramic shots of the land that time forgot.  I loved the mysticism of the aboriginal culture mixed in with the European worldview.

And then, from a writer’s perspective, I loved the lines about the uselessness of material objects when really all we ever own is our own stories.  This is something I fully realized only recently.  I have come to value my stories like never before.  That’s when I stopped selling them to others and started writing my own books.

I think I also enjoyed the fact that the stars of the show, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are in their 40s and they portray authentic older adults who have lost their first loves, and therefore realistically have gigantic fears around loving someone new.  They are older and therefore completely understand the risks involved in trusting in life enough to love again.

I could go on and on, but instead I will only say SEE IT!

See it on some afternoon when you have plenty of time (it’s almost 3 hours long!) and you want to escape into an amazing new world, one very different from that which surrounds you now.  See it for the wonderful anthropology and history lessons you will gain on top of the fascinating story! JUST SEE IT!