This one is for all the rage-cryers out there. You know who you are. I’m one, too. I cry when I am furious, and it used to really piss me off. In class, in heated discussions in a college setting, at work. Someone would say something that enraged me (remember – rage is about powerlessness, so whenever there was a particular injustice or something that was misconstrued in an altogether unfair way, when I was belittled or mocked or dismissed …) and I would feel it start to well up and it was awful because I am a woman. It’s embarrassing. And more than that, it is one of those things that, as soon as the tears begin to flow, you know people will stop paying attention to what you’re saying and start reacting to the fact that you are “being emotional.”
If you identify with this, you are aware that there is literally nothing you can do to stop it once it starts. Even if you do your level best to continue to speak logically, you know there are people who are rolling their eyes at you and dismissing you simply because you are crying.
But here’s the thing: focus on the “nothing you can do” part and know this (and share it widely because the more people know, the more we can destigmatize rage tears): Rage crying is a normal, physiological human response to increased levels of cortisol in our bodies.
The main goal of our bodies is to maintain and/or restore homeostasis – that is, a middle ground, equilibrium. That is why, when we get too hot, our bodies trigger the mechanism that makes us sweat, so we cool off. When we are too cold, we shiver and get goosebumps so that we are prompted to raise our body temperature. When we have too much gas in our systems, our bodies have adapted to pass that gas – by burping or farting. Etc. Etc. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by our adrenal glands in response to stress, and when we have too much of it, our bodies know that it needs to be offloaded somehow. Excess cortisol affects our immune response, increases levels of inflammation and can cause all sorts of physical ailments – so when there is too much, we have to get rid of it.
Wanna know one of the most efficient ways to offload cortisol?
I shit you not.
Researchers have measured the amount of cortisol in tears when people are crying in different situations, and have shown that there are elevated levels of stress hormone in the tears of people who rage cry.
So basically, when you are frustrated with someone and feeling powerless and you start to sob, that is just your body’s way of achieving homeostasis – it’s like burping when you have too much gas in your belly or sweating when you’re too hot.
Sadly, we have been taught that crying in public is unacceptable, so many of us have learned to stifle this urge. Patriarchy has us teaching boys that it’s not really ok to cry at all, and prompts us to tell young women that in order to be ‘professional’ they need to compose themselves at work or they won’t be taken seriously. But this does nothing to relieve our bodies of the extra stress hormone it carries, and so when we force ourselves to stop crying, our bodies often turn to other means. So what else do humans do to relieve stress during these times? Men and boys have been socialized to externalize their stress – how many stories have you heard of a teenage boy punching a hole in a wall when he was upset? Turns out punching and kicking things also offloads cortisol (although not as efficiently as crying). Young women and girls internalize their stress for social and cultural reasons and one of the scariest things we know about how they try to achieve homeostasis is by self-harming – namely burning or cutting themselves. Cortisol levels drop measurably in people who engage in cutting behavior (and, yes, young men engage in self-harm as well, although not as often as young women do).
So the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we’d rather normalize angry tears from our fellow human beings as a normal, physiological response to stress or not. Can we recognize that this is a normal, adaptive thing that our bodies do and not force an alternative response that will ultimately end up being more harmful? Yes, it’s uncomfortable for us to witness another person crying, but the more we understand that it is literally something our bodies need to do in order to function better, the more we can accept it and move forward.
Tell your families, tell your co-workers, tell your kids. And the next time you feel that familiar lump in your throat and your hands clench into fists, let ‘er rip.