Yoni, age 27, came to therapy to get help with some traumatic memories from fighting in a recent war in Israel. When he recalled one such memory, a fellow soldier who was killed in battle, Yoni started to cry. Even though he was able to express the sadness that he felt by crying, he hid his face from me by covering his eyes with his hands. He did not want me to see him cry and he seemed to be embarrassed.
We spoke about this in therapy. I asked Yoni to explain why he covered his eyes when he cried. He said that this was the first time he remembers crying as an adult. His dad always said, “Real men don’t cry.” Over the course of Yoni’s therapy, I helped him to overcome his negative image about crying and helped him to begin to view crying as a strength rather than as a weakness. This shift in attitude was enormously helpful to Yoni, who needed to release the pain.
Yoni is not alone at all. Many men feel that crying shows weakness. In fact, studies show repeatedly that women cry three to five times more often than men do. According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, which has collated different scientific studies on crying, the average woman cries 30 to 64 times a year, and the average man cries six to 17 times a year.
Yoni’s response reflects the different societal expectations of how men should show emotions. Whereas women often greet each other with hugs and kisses, men usually shake each other’s hand. Men often refrain from showing their soft side in public and leave their feelings private. There is clearly a difference, but the real question is why?
Most readers would immediately attribute differences in crying between men and women to cultural and psychological factors. This certainly would seem logical. Crying is, after all, an emotional expression of pain and likely to be psychologically related to emotional events that an individual has had to face in his/her lifetime. However, when I took a closer look at the literature on this topic, I found that many explanations are based on the newer neurosciences, especially research done studying the biological differences between men and women.
Hormones in the male brain
In The Male Brain, psychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine writes that there may be a biological reason women cry more than men do. The male hormone, testosterone, has been shown to inhibit crying in men. Men feel their adrenalin and biceps tense and it bounces quickly into an angry reaction. Males have about 20 times more physical anger and aggression than females.
Hormones in the female brain
According to neuroscientists, between puberty and throughout a woman’s childbearing years, prolactin, a hormone that regulates mammalian milk production, is responsible for emotional crying. It is interesting to note that boys and girls before puberty have the same level of prolactin, but after puberty and throughout childrearing years, adult women have prolactin levels almost 60% above the average male. The difference may help to explain why women cry more frequently (Frey, WH et al. Am J Ophthamol, 1981). It is also interesting to note that women have shallower tear ducts than men, which are more quickly filled up and spilled over, allowing for more crying.
Benefits of crying
The answer to why men like Yoni have trouble crying is far more complex than one might believe. As one can see, there are biological hormonal factors in addition to psychological and cultural elements that help us understand these gender differences. Nevertheless, crying can yield clear health benefits:
• Emotional tears contain stress hormones and other toxins that get flushed out of your system when you cry.
• Crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system that helps your body to feel soothed and rested.
• Crying for long periods releases oxytocin and endogenous opioids, otherwise known as endorphins, which dulls pain and provides a feeling of well-being.
• Crying helps those who have experienced loss to recover from grief.
• Crying also can activate in others a signal to want to show support and care which helps one to feel better.
• People generally report that they feel better after crying.
While it may be true that men cry less than women do, they certainly can enjoy the same health and psychological benefits if they get the help to cry when the need arises. Men need the encouragement. The message that men need to hear is that tears are not a sign of weakness, but are instead signs of courage, strength and authenticity.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. www.facebook.com/drmikegropper ; email@example.com