The Reason We Cry: Part II
While Efran and Greene suggest this two-stage process of tension and relief of tension involves only a shift rather than a release per se, I want to argue this point. Tears are literally released from the body. Epinephrine and other stress hormones have been released from the adrenal gland and now need to be metabolized, broken down, recycled or excreted as waste. Control over the body’s functions is released from the sympathetic nervous system (which kept us scared as long as it was active) to the parasympathetic nervous system (which will keep us calm as long as it is active). And when the stressors reappear, the cycle repeats. Control is released from the parasympathetic “settle” and taken up by the sympathetic “fear”.
The body is even more subtle than this, however. I said there were two nervous systems. Well, actually there are three. The third nervous system is the central nervous system or CNS. The CNS contains a tiny almond shaped structure called the amygdala. The amygdala is a part of the limbic system which we have in common with most other animals. In collaboration with other parts of the limbic system such as the septum, the amygdala is sensitive to life-threatening stressors. The thing is, it tends to “hold on” to remnants of these stressors and reminds the brain that the body survived a trauma. Associated with the experience of living through a threat is an emotional memory, comprised of images of what the body did, thought, and felt when its survival was in question. This emotional memory is internal to the traumatized person and can literally last a lifetime. It can recur and prevent adequate sleep. It can evoke nightmares. It can activate the sympathetic nervous system when the event isn’t even happening any more. It can frighten a person to the point where it’s just too much energy to contain and, again, the tears flow. There is a kind of acceptance here which some see as giving up. Yes, I think giving up is appropriate – giving up the holding back, the restraint, in favour of freedom of emotional expression. Once that restraint is given up, the stomach aches, headaches, the shaking and physical restlessness, have a chance to subside and go away.