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.


What’s GOOD about a life crisis?

September 9, 2009

leap_of_faith blog size“Only those who risk going too far, can possibly find out how far one can go.”  -T.S. Eliot

We all know what’s bad about a crisis. We are usually taken by surprise by a major change we didn’t see coming, one that is really tough to adjust to.

I can’t say I didn’t see my divorce coming,  I just wouldn’t accept it. Then one day my husband and I decided together that it was simply what  needed to happen, for each of us to find happiness in the long run.

But when I lost my job, I was taken completely by surprise!  At that time, no one could have convinced me that this was a good thing!   It was one of the worst times in my entire life.  I struggled mightily with myself and my fate.

But today, I see how I needed for these misfortunes to occur, for me to wake up and begin to live my life with more integrity.

So what’s GOOD about a life crisis? It quickly knocks us out of our comfort zone, and then demands more from us. When more is demanded, more is given.

If I hadn’t lost my job, I never would have started my dating service for those 40+.   I never would have had the experience of starting my own business, struggled with those circumstances and I probably wouldn’t have met my lovely new husband. Then I wouldn’t have moved, gotten the money from my old house, and used that to start seeing a career counselor who slowly talked me into doing exactly what I had always wanted to do.

We never know what one small change in our lives might lead to.  Sometimes we just need to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Life crises can force our hand, pushing us into a whole new world of risk and benefit. We may feel forced to take risks we would never have considered before, and in this way, learn much more about ourselves and our full potential.

What are women’s greatest concerns when it comes to aging?

August 11, 2009

While doing research for my upcoming presentation at the Larimer County September Symposium, I found a fascinating study from 2004 on womens’ perceptions of aging.  Here’s a PDF of the full presentation and findings.

The psychologists involved in this study questioned 1,000 healthy, physically fit, active women age 18-86 (average age 41) about various aspects of aging and the fear they felt.

Overall they found that health challenges, money problems and fear of loneliness rated the highest among all of the women questioned. After that, loss of emotional well-being, loss of a mate, and fear of a spiritual void followed in importance, along with fear of death.

The highest overall levels of fear were found among women age 20-29, and the least among those  70 and older.  Women who were separated or never married were found to be most fearful and women in their 40s-60s were found to be most confident.  Women who were self-employed were most confident regardless of  time projections.

Perhaps the most interesting finding was that aging concerns differ greatly by age and marital status.

Can old dogs learn new tricks?

August 7, 2009

TeachingYourDogNewTricksThe short answer is yes, but it takes us longer to accept the fact that we need to, and even longer to decide what’s next!

And then there’s all those irritating new tricks we are forced to learn because of unwelcome changes in our health, our employment status or our marital status.

I don’t know about you, but ever since I hit midlife it’s been change, change, change. I feel like I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into a whole new life, resisting it at every turn in the road.

I was scared to death to get a divorce, but I did it anyway.  Even more afraid of losing my job, but I also survived that somehow.  And you cannot imagine the terror I felt when faced with trying out a whole new career at 50! That turned out to be the most rewarding change of all!

Now I find myself unbelievably HAPPY, even though I didn’t even want to go down this road in the first place.  Explain that one to me!  I guess it’s just another one of those MYSTERIES OF MIDLIFE…

I’m now busy preparing to do a presentation with Katy Piotrowski for our Larimer County September Symposium on September 25th.  Our topic:  How to teach old dogs fabulous new tricks. Our goal is to motivate others to take a chance on changing their lives.

At the last talk I presented, the first question at the end was, do you have to hit bottom before you can really start changing your life?  My only response was, “I did.”  If those fortuitous misfortunes had not happened, I don’t know where I’d be now.  I apparently needed to get desperate enough before I could admit to myself that my life was not working, thus inspiring me to change everything.

At the risk of sounding pathologically optimistic, I now see just about every obstacle that I bump into in my life as an opportunity to learn more about myself and get better at something.

For example, divorce is simply nature’s way of telling you that you don’t quite have this whole marriage thing figured out yet.  But that’s OK!  Do-overs ARE ALLOWED!

Job loss is nature’s way of telling you that it’s time to change something major, and try to get it right this time.  Lucky us, our old job didn’t want us, now we get to go do something we might actually enjoy!

Thank goodness (and my toxic boss) I lost my last library job!  After twenty-five years, I REALLY needed a change!  And just imagine all the great things it did for my brain elasticity.

A cautionary tale about online “instimacy”

June 7, 2009

online-dating for blogJust read an entertaining story about one midlife man’s experiences with social media as he emerges from a divorce and starts dating again.

His cautionary tale reminds us all that “instimacy” (instant intimacy, my word!) especially when experienced through the wonders of the internet, is often too good to be true!

It’s really no different than online dating, whether you’re making friends or trolling for your next “intimate” relationship, this is when it becomes essential to understand the concept of positive projection.

The online environment makes it far too easy to project everything you really want and need in a friend or partner onto the person you’ve just  met on Match.com or Facebook.  When you start doing that, you have suddenly ventured into the danger zone!

It’s really all about expectations.  The higher your expectations or need for a friend or partner, the wilder your imagination can get pretending that this person, who you really DON’T KNOW, is going to fulfill all of your wildest dreams.

Trust me, I know of what I speak!  My first and only experience with E-Harmony was probably fairly typical.  I hadn’t joined, I was just dabbling.  I filled out their enormous questionnaire and a few hours later they contacted me to say that they had found the perfect match.

OK, so I was feeling desperate!  I started communicating with my “perfect match” and things were going great!  We e-mailed, talked on the phone a few times and then decided to meet.

The first thing I noticed as he rushed up to my front door was that my gay-dar went off really loud!  Is he gay???  I decided I didn’t care, I just wanted to get to know him as a person.  We spoke for hours and had a great time, except that I felt certain that he was gay.  We set up a lunch meeting for the next day.

But the next morning I didn’t hear from him and later, when I tried his cell number, I could not get anything but voicemail.  In fact, I never heard a peep from him again.  I never even knew if he gave me his real name.

On Monday, I went into work and asked a gay male friend of mine if a man could be 53 years old and still not know that he was gay.  He said, “Yes, and the hardest part is when they finally come out, they will ask if you ever suspected it.  And you can’t really say, well duh!”

There’s your cautionary tale on internet “instimacy!”  After that I have always insisted on being in the same room with a real person after only a couple e-mails and maybe a phone call.  I want to feel another person in the room with me and see what happens to the projections then!

Why don’t people in other cultures experience midlife depression?

May 30, 2009

For those of you who just got here, the answer is THEY DO!!!

Data analysis of 2 million people in 80 different countries showed that 44 is the average age when we all are most vulnerable to depression.  Check out this BBC REPORT from January 2008. They found a remarkably consistent pattern worldwide.

The risk for depression is lowest in younger and older people, with the middle years associated with the highest risk  for men and women.  The only country which recorded a significant gender difference was the U.S., where unhappiness reached a peak around the age of 40 for women, and 50 for men.

These findings of a peak risk for depression in midlife were consistent around the globe among all types of people!.

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.”