Weeping is a human behavior. It helps us relieve stress, communicate with others, and feel soothed. Crying can also feel overwhelming, embarrassing, or just “in the way.” Sometimes, it lets us know that our physical or mental health is out of balance. All of these things can apply to the teariness that is ever-present for some of us in the days before our periods.
In most cultures, for generations, females have wept more than males. I remember many times as a little girl, sitting beside my mother or another grown woman, watching a movie, or maybe a well-crafted TV commercial, and seeing them tear up. It struck me at some point that not only didn't I cry at these times, but I didn't feel anywhere near crying. I remember noticing that I rarely saw a man cry while watching a film.
And then, in that adolescent phase of oh-so-many firsts, there came a First Time that I teared up during a movie. I was about 15 years old. I don't remember what I was watching, but I remember feeling like my tears were a sign of growing up, a milestone, even. As a younger girl, I'd already experienced strong emotions during stories. Vicarious fear while watching movies was familiar. But this was the first time that I was moved to tears. Was this because I was more mature in some way? My compassion and empathy a deep enough well that I could weep for someone else's story? My hormones swelling full enough to spill over in my tears? Could they be related?
Research has shown that emotional tears contain hormones, while reflex tears (like those in reaction to dust in the eyes, or chopping an onion) do not contain hormones. This has led many to speculate that tears themselves are a form of stress relief: we release excess hormones (especially the ones our bodies produce when under pressure) through our tears. Perhaps this is why one of the times we most readily cry is when we are relieved – when a danger or a distressing event has passed, and we no longer need the high levels of hormones meant to help us respond.
Lots of popular articles discuss why crying is good for you, and why suppressing your tears is bad for you. There's also a fair amount of scientific research showing that the benefits of crying depend on who is crying, how they feel about crying, and how others respond to their crying. So how can we each understand it in ourselves?
Chinese medicine has described tears as “the fluid of the Liver network” for thousands of years. The eyes themselves have also always been associated with the Liver network. In the imagery of Chinese medicine, we can look at this network as a tree. The Liver organ is the root, the Liver channel spreads as the trunk and branches, and the eyes are its leaves. When I have treated patients who complain of dry eyes by using herbs or acupuncture for their Liver networks, lubricating tears have reliably returned.
The connection between the Liver and the eyes also aligns with the biomedical understanding that the liver processes hormones, including stress hormones, which we release in tears. Several hormones and biochemicals have been found to be involved in crying: levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) decrease after weeping, and Nerve-Growth Factor is present in tears. Prolactin, primarily a breastfeeding hormone, appears to promote tears, which might be one of several reasons females cry more often than males.
One of my herbal medicine professors once half-joked that although Freud's idea of why a female might envy a male's body is nonsense, there could be reason for males to envy female physiology: their ability to more readily shed tears. “Crying envy,” he suggested, could be understandable, since females seem to have easier access to this form of stress relief and release.
Does this help explain why some women find themselves “always on the verge of tears” during their premenstrual phase? Between ovulation and menstruation (the second phase of the cycle), our estrogen and progesterone levels are at their highest. When PMS occurs, whether as breast tenderness, bloating, irritability, or easy weeping, very often I use herbs and acupuncture to treat my patient's Liver network – with quick, effective relief. When the Liver network is not able to efficiently handle high hormone levels, PMS symptoms occur, and this may be why hormones spill over in our tears.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, feeling teary also implicates the Lung network, which handles the emotion of grief and the experience of poignancy. An acupuncturist or herbalist who is treating you could address this – but you can check on it yourself, too, and use acupressure self-massage as needed. When the Lung is involved, often the point named Central Treasury (Lung 1) is tender. It will feel sore or sensitive when you press on it, as compared to other places around it. This point is located on your chest, about an inch below the corner made
by your collarbone meeting your shoulder. The Liver network lets us know it could use some help with tenderness at the point called Cycle Gate (Liver 14). This one is in the 6th intercostal space (the space between ribs). On males, this is directly below the nipple, but on females it can be easier to find it by looking below the midpoint of the collarbone, just under the base of the breast. If Central Treasury or Cycle Gate are tender, you can massage them directly, or massage points that will help treat their channels, such as Joining Valley (Large Intestine 4) or Great Surge (Liver 3).
Self-massage on acupressure points is an easy way to help balance your own body's circulation. It can relieve feelings of stress, tension, and pain. Practiced every day, it can help you regulate internal function as well, so your hormones stay in better balance.
If your teariness starts sometime in the two weeks before your period, and lifts away after your period starts, it can be called “premenstrual.” In that case, there is probably a hormonal aspect to it (in biomedical terms), or a Lung/Liver aspect (in Chinese medicine terms). But if teariness, sadness, or other signs of depression are present for you all the time, this may not be simply a hormonal issue. Likewise, if other excessive, uncontrollable expressions of emotion are a repeated experience for you, such as sudden laughing or anger, this could be related to a brain condition called Pseudo-Bulbar Affect (PBA). If your crying feels out of hand to you, I encourage you to look for help from a health care provider or mental health practitioner.
Alternatively, your tears might be perfectly healthy, and important. Central Treasury (Lung 1) and Cycle Gate (Liver 14) might not feel tender. Or maybe they do, but you don't feel like your teariness is a sign of imbalance. Are you close to tears, or actually crying, because there's something to cry about? Maybe there's something (or lots of things) to cry about all the time – and premenstrually, it comes more naturally to let the tears flow. Maybe it's even functional to have a time that we weep more, a time that we release stress hormones, just as we release blood and excess iron during menstruation. I tear up pretty easily premenstrually – especially during the climactic scene of whatever movie my kids are watching. It doesn't bother me. Those scenes are moving, and my ability to be moved is close to the surface at that time in my cycle. It's important to trust yourself as the primary expert on your own body, and if your tears are not troubling you, simply letting them fall may be a healthy, healing thing to do for yourself.
I've gone through a few hormonal chapters since that first time I shed movie-induced tears. I've been pregnant, I've breastfed, and I've returned to cycling as a mother. In this phase of my life, I tear up during movies more often than ever. The poignancy of life feels that much closer. The power of relationships, of acts of solidarity, of life-changing events, all touch me quickly and deeply. During the post-ovulatory (pre-menstrual) phase of my cycle, it feels easier to reach the point of tears. The events or stories that bring me to tears, though, are the same things that would touch me any time. For me, this is part of what it feels like to be in balance. On the other hand, when I am extremely irritable, or someone's words that normally wouldn't hurt seem like cruel barbs, then I do feel like something is out of balance. Usually, it's my Liver network that could use support.
Our tears are important, healing, and informative. They are one of the many signs our bodies give about how we are doing physically, mentally, and emotionally. As natural as changes in the ocean, sometimes our own salt water rises like the tide, and sometimes comes in waves. After the tears crash and recede, we can often find relief and insight in their wake.