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Better to Cry Than to Eat Emotionally

Many of my clients with dysregulated eating have difficulty crying. It’s important to understand its function because my hunch is that many of you would do less emotional eating if you cried more. How do you feel about crying? Do you understand its purpose? Do you even know that it has one, and that—of all things—it may be connected to sex?

According to Jay Efran, psychology professor at Temple University, who has a two-stage theory about tears, “people cry when something sparks anxiety or distress, and this is followed by a moment of recalibration or release…Both laughing and crying seem to be dictated by a rapid change in the part of our nervous system that controls involuntary actions such as heartbeat and pupil dilations.” (Sarasota Herald Tribune, p. E22, 5/11/16) When male mice tears are analyzed, they’re found to contain a pheromone that increases the possibility of females wanting to mate with them. In one experiment, men had a decrease in sexual arousal after smelling women’s tears which may relate to crying signaling females’ need for comfort and to discourage sex.

Efran explains that “Certainly early in life, crying indicates that the organism is tense and overwhelmed; it’s a signal to the caretaker that they need some help. So in evolutionary terms, it’s sort of efficient because it signals that help is needed and also indicates a system rehabilitation or recovery. The latter comes from the release of built up tension. In every day language, tears are an automatic release of tension which alert others to our need for comfort while they also make us feel better.”

Barely a week goes by when one of my eating dysregulated clients doesn’t start to tear up in a session, then pull back. My job is to help them release bodily and psychic tension and to make it absolutely fine for them to cry. Sometimes, listening to them, sadness builds up in my body, and I might even cry with them. Generally, after that, we both feel a good deal better.

So, what if you were to release the tension in your body by crying rather than emotional eating? Think about whether this small act which has beneficial results might be one path out of dysregulated eating. Depending on your beliefs about crying, you might need to do some reframing that it is not only okay to shed tears, but absolutely essential for mental health. Test this theory out. The next time you’re sad or distressed, give yourself permission to cry and let the tears flow until they stop on their own. I guarantee that when the tears are flowing, you won’t feel like eating.