Have you ever cried so deeply that it felt good? Perhaps it happened when you watched the end of a particularly sad movie or heard a song that pulled at your heart strings. Maybe you were experiencing a week of feeling overwhelmed or depressed and it finally culminated in tears.
Yet instead of feeling completely knocked out by the expenditure of energy, tears, and tissues, you felt surprisingly light afterward. It’s as if your mind and body had been rejuvenated and any dark clouds hanging over you seemed to dissapate.
If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. In fact, you’ve experienced a natural part of how the body and mind work together to help heal and renew themselves.
The science of emotions in the body
In his seminal book, The Body Keeps the Score, Psychiatrist Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk explains that people carry emotions on not only a mental level, but on a physical level as well. In other words, emotional energy gets stored in the body.
Dr. Van der Kolk writes that in extreme cases, the toll of unprocessed emotions can be so great that it causes adverse effects on a person’s physical health in the form of illness.
Similarly, Dr. Peter Levine, a leading somatic psychologist and the creator of the international renown modality Somatic Experiencing, discovered that humans and animals share a similar set of tools for expelling stuck emotional energy. When a prey animal like a gazelle is nearly caught by a cheetah but survives, this near-death-experience is later processed by the gazelle. In fact, nearly all vertebrates that experience near-death-experiences in the wild undergo a similar ritual of finding a safe place and physically ‘shaking out’ the energy of fear and shock that occurred earlier.
Through his observations in nature, Dr. Levine pioneered various mind-body approaches to help clients that had not benefited from traditional talk therapy use body awareness to heal stuck emotions of grief, fear, trauma, anger and more.
Why it feels good to cry
Think back to the last time you had a truly good cry. Think about what it was like to cry and how you acted. Set aside what you were thinking at the time and consider what your body was doing.
What you might be surprised to remember is that this experience didn’t simply involve tears streaming down your face; your body was quite active as well. This is because a good cry, the kind that feels cathartic afterward, is by nature a physical exercise.
If you don’t fight the process, your entire body gets involved in the expression of sadness. The body becomes tense and starts moving in a variety of ways. Your face might become constricted sometimes the point of hurting your cheeks. Often times you start clenching your fists or shaking your arms. Your neck might pull back pointing your face up to the sky or it may start twisting back and forth like you’re shaking your head to say ‘no.’ Perhaps most common of all is that you may feel shakey both during and after crying in this way.
These physical expressions of saddness are all part of the mechanism your mind and body uses to release accumulated emotional energy of hurt, anger or grief. In other words, a deep cry is one of your best tools for processing experiences that elicited a strong emotional charge in you. And the benefits of a cry like this can be felt in the resulting elevated mood or a strong sense of calm shortly thereafter.
Crying as a form of self-care
It’s worth pointing out that even our language hints at how crying helps heal us. A common way of describing someone who cried deeply is to say they ‘broke down.’
Though a breakdown might sound like a bad thing, on a physiological level, this description is truer than you may realize. Crying helps you break down the old and make space for a new experience. Crying moves you forward. Crying can be critical to finding closure in the face of grief. Crying allows you to process a painful experience that you didn’t have the time or ability to work through at the moment that you lived it.
Whether you’re experiencing a good cry in a therapist’s office, listening to a sad song, watching a movie, or simply in the privacy of your home, the experience feels good afterward because it’s the body’s natural way of healing, processing and growing. Crying is more than just cathartic, according to several leading voices in the field of somatic or body-based psychology, crying can be a necessary part of supporting your mental and physical health in the long run.