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Four acupuncture patients reclining in a softly lit room, practitioner standing to the right tending to a patient.

Crying and Community Acupuncture: Tears in the Treatment Room

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

We think that having a cry when you’re upset can be good for you. Science seems to agree; William Frey II, a biochemist in Minneapolis, found that the composition of tears caused by emotion differs from that of “reflex” tears caused by physical irritants (like onions or dust). Reflex tears are about 98% water, while emotional tears have much higher levels of chemicals such as prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormones (ACTH) and leucine-enkephalin. ACTH is a hormone often produced in response to stress and Leucine-enkephalin is an endorphin that reduces pain and improves mood. One theory about why we cry suggests we evolved to shed tears as a mechanism to literally wash stress away.

People often come in for community acupuncture when they’re approaching the breaking point with some issue, whether it’s physical, emotional, or a combination of the two. It’s not at all uncommon for someone to tear up as they’re telling us what’s going on, followed by a whispered apology. Our response is always to reassure them: “Don’t worry, people cry in here all the time.”

People sometimes worry about bothering other patients with crying. We’ve noticed that quiet weeping and sniffling is no more disturbing than the music, white noise machines, whispers, sighs and occasional snoring that makes the background noise of the clinic. Some folk initially worry about making other people uncomfortable by crying, but we’ve actually had patients come up to us and express how safe it makes them feel to have others cry in the space. Crying can actually make others in the room feel more comfortable opening up and perhaps even having a good cry themselves.

Acupuncture can stir up strong emotions, anything from sudden joy to old unexpressed grief. Acupuncture can be an especially emotional experience if we’ve been “holding it together”. For many of us, acupuncture time is when we get to relax and stop pretending that we’re fine…cue tears! And when you’re in that deeply frustrating state of not being able to cry–despite wanting to, knowing that you need to, and that you’ll feel better when you do–acupuncture is a brilliant intervention for shaking tears loose.

So not only is it fine with us when patient cry during treatment, we also tend to see it as a good thing when someone gets the physical & emotional release of tears along with the acupuncture.

We do realise that crying usually comes with baggage. Many of us have been shamed for displays of intense emotion. People socialised as women cry much more often than people socialised as men, and we think that has much to do with gender training, not only biology. And for some, crying is a deeply private and personal thing that they would never do in a public space. That’s ok. We don’t mean to suggest that public criers are somehow more evolved or “better at healing”. There are as many ways to deal with intense emotions as there are people in the world. We never push anyone to get more vulnerable than what is right for them.

But given how many of our patients feel dramatically better after the cry-and–nap combo, it’s worth announcing very clearly: It’s Ok To Cry In Here. If it comes, we suggest letting those tears loose if it makes you feel better. 100% of our paid staff and many of our POCA volunteers have had a quiet cry in our recliners. (One or two of us may have even perfected the art of the Silent Sob.)

So if you need or want to cry while you’re here, please know that we don’t mind, that crying is a very compatible therapy with acupuncture, and that you’re in good company.

Four acupuncture patients reclining in a softly lit room, practitioner standing to the right tending to a patient.

Photo by Vanessa Tignanelli

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GIA