It is sometimes said that ‘a good cry’ while watching a soppy movie, for example, makes us feel better. The emotional benefits of crying may be well known but what effect does crying have on the eyes themselves? In this article, we ask highly esteemed optometrist and expert in dry eye and neuro-optometry, Mr Robert Longhurst, to explain the physical effects of crying on our eyes and how tears can impact our emotional wellbeing.
What types of tears does the eye produce?
There are three types of tears produced by the eye and all are beneficial to eye health in different ways. The eye produces:
- basal tears
- reflex tears
- emotional tears
Basal tears are responsible for lubricating the eyes when we blink. They keep the eyes comfortably hydrated and stop them from drying out. As opposed to crying emotional tears, which happens only occasionally, basal tears are a constant source of hydration for the eye. Given that an overly dry eye can lead to blurry vision, the hydration provided by basal tears helps you to see well. They also contain an antimicrobial enzyme called lysozyme, which helps to prevent your eyes from becoming infected.
On the other hand, reflex tears, as the name suggests, are the eye’s response to irritants, such as wind or smoke. If you have ever shed a few tears while chopping an onion, it is sure to have been reflex tears, responding to the strong compounds released by the onion. They mostly contain water, diluting and thus removing irritants from the eye, as well as other debris. This protects the cornea from becoming scratched or damaged and as such, protects your vision.
Emotional tears are what we mostly think of when we talk about crying. They contain adrenaline and high levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Therefore, crying emotional tears is proven to reduce stress levels and regulate emotions, benefiting our overall health. What’s more, emotional tears also contain oxytocin and endorphins, also known as feel-good hormones. These hormones can act as a painkiller, relieving physical and emotional pain. This explains why we often feel the impulse to cry if we hurt ourselves or when we hear difficult news.
Why do some people not feel the urge to cry?
Although it is beneficial for our emotional wellbeing and eye health, some people don´t feel an impulse to cry emotional tears.
There are a number of reasons for this, one being the cultural stigma around crying. A British ‘stiff upper lip’ or pressure on men to hide their emotions, for example can prevent people from releasing their feelings through emotional crying. Similarly, abusive or negative experiences related to crying in childhood or depression may be factors that can make crying difficult.
Aside from psychological factors, why else do people have difficulty producing tears?
Dry eye syndrome is a relatively common condition where the eyes do not produce sufficient tears or they are evaporated too quickly, meaning the eyes are uncomfortably dehydrated. Aqueous deficient dry eye is the specific name for this lack of hydration in the eyes and there are a range of factors that cause it.
Aqueous deficient dry eye can be caused by ageing or as a complication of eye surgery or diabetes. Additionally, it can be caused by commonly used medication such as anti-depressants or beta-blockers, used to regulate high blood pressure.
Sjögren’s syndrome can also be behind a case of aqueous deficient dry eye. It is an auto-immune disorder, most commonly found in women between the ages of forty and sixty, which causes the body to wrongly attack certain glands. These glands are responsible for producing saliva and tears, meaning the patient will find it difficult to cry and will likely have dry skin and a dry mouth.
When should I see a specialist?
If you have a watery eye when there is no irritant present, it may be, conversely, a sign of dry eye syndrome. You should see a specialist optician or optometrist. On the other hand, if you find it difficult to cry, you should seek specialist advice, as there is likely to be treatment available.
Tears, emotional, basal and reflex, are the eye’s way of protecting itself from damaging debris, irritants and infections, as well as helping us to regulate our emotions, reduce stress and relieve pain. Crying when you feel the impulse is healthy and natural.
If you are experiencing symptoms of dry eye syndrome or are worried about your eye health, you can visit Mr Longhurst’s Top Doctors profile to book a consultation with him.