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Spilt Milk

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August 27, 2023

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SPILT MILK: I can cry if I want to

Don’t cry over spilt milk. Don’t make a mountain out of molehill. Let it go. Move on.

But what if I want to paddle the massive puddle of self-pity for a while?

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I like crying! Sometimes when I feel a good cry coming on, I hold onto it and save it for the right time and place where things can get ugly comfortably—home of course, but settled in, on the couch or in bed—and savor this tragedy like a dark chocolate.

When my boyfriend moved out of our shared city apartment so many moons ago, I made a cry date with myself, a notebook, and wine for many following Fridays in a row. I wrote plenty of quality-questionable poems and listened to Tori and Alanis on a loop. Until eventually I became bored of this ritual and got the heck back up.

I’m always impressed how the body can conjure seemingly unlimited tears. What are they really and is the act of crying good for you? Since I told my daughters it is good for you (when they were concerned lately that I was crying too much) I’m glad this Harvard article, the psychologists, and the Ancient Greeks agree:

Medical benefits of crying have been known as far back as the Classical era. Thinkers and physicians of ancient Greece and Rome posited that tears work like a purgative, draining off and purifying us. Today’s psychological thought largely concurs, emphasizing the role of crying as a mechanism that allows us to release stress and emotional pain.

Crying is an important safety valve, largely because keeping difficult feelings inside—what psychologists call repressive coping—can be bad for our health. Studies have linked repressive coping with a less resilient immune system, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension, as well as with mental health conditions, including stress, anxiety, and depression. Crying has also been shown to increase attachment behavior, encouraging closeness, empathy, and support from friends and family.

Turns out there are different kinds of tears with varied compositions, each that serve different functions. All tears have three layers, as outlined in this article in the AARP journal, of all places:

  • An inner mucus layer to keep the tear stuck to the eye
  • A watery middle layer to keep the eye wet, fight off bacteria on the cornea, or the clear outer layer of your eye
  • An oily outer layer to prevent the tears from drying out

Where does all this mucus, water and oil come from? The salty water (98% water for most maintenance tears) is produced by the lacrimal glands above your eyes. The mucus and oil comes from the meibomian glands, along your upper lash line. Blinking helps bring these two necessary ingredients together and spreads it around the cornea. Then the excess liquid drains into your tear ducts, the holes in the inner corners of your eyelids called puncta the size of rice grains, down into the nasolacrimal ducts in the nose to evaporate or reabsorb.

Three layers, and then three types of tears:

  • Basal (or continuous) tears happen all day to keep you moist, help focus your vision, and keep your eyeballs clean and healthy.
  • Reflex tears are the onion tears. (Or in my weird brother’s case, potato—he cries while cutting potatoes). They are mostly lacrimal, so mostly water, and flow more heavily than the basal. They also include antibodies to help fight germs.
  • Finally, saved only for humans, the emotional tears have the good drugs: proteins and hormones like prolactin, potassium, manganese and stress hormones like oxytocin and endogenous opioids, also known as endorphins. It is believed crying is a fine example of our body’s stress relief and helps calm you down, activating your parasympathetic nervous system, slowing your breathing and heart rate. To activate emotional tears, the limbic system that regulates emotions tells your brain to get going with the tear production. There’s too much for your tear ducts to handle so they pour down your pathetic face. It’s recommended to do this for a while: a few minutes relaxes your body; a long bout and the chemical team comes in to relieve your physical and emotional pain.

There’s also a social benefit to this—cry in public and people might feel sorry for you. You’ll get attention and maybe even empathy. (Or in the case of my daughters, that might only work the first time when they kindly hand you a bath bomb, but then on subsequent occasions they will tell you to please stop mom this is getting embarrassing).

But cry away I say. Just try to empty the endless well of my midlife.

“Tears are the summer showers to the soul.”
— British poet Alfred Austin

I have to admit, I was surprised to read internet commentary from so many women who fess to crying during the Barbie movie. I came around to caving to the idea that the blockbuster hit was good enough to see sooner than later, but emotionally fraught enough to be cry-worthy? Turns out: yes. Gender roles between doll-world and human-world are complicated, confusing, and conducive to crying your eyes out. My daughters and I all teared up during the movie (me more of course) after we sight-adjusted to all the pink and plastic. The beachy hormonal waters overran the insufficient ducts.

(P.S. Barbie isn’t just for girls, and neither is crying). Let it rip!


Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop, Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is shar­ing reg­u­larly with The Hud­son In­de­pen­dent read­ership. You can subscribe for free  to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box. 

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