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Why We Cry

The Reason We Cry: Part I

It is a hallmark of psychotherapy that “everyone cries”. Yet, clients often attempt to hold back the tears. Or, if they can’t, they apologize for crying and lament how they told themselves, “I wasn’t going to do this”. I’ve attempted to let clients know that it’s okay to cry, but I’ve been met with ongoing complaints that my client’s “mascara will run” or “it’s embarrassing”. As valid as these concerns are, the reason we cry is deeper and actually important to our emotional health. Because suppressing emotions can convert into physical symptoms in the long-run, the reason we cry is important to our physical health as well.

In the Psychotherapy Networker, in 2012, Jay Efron, emeritus professor of psychology at Temple University and Mitchell Greene, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Pennsylvania proposed a theory that makes good biological sense. Akin to the idea of “boiling over” or being “flooded” or overwhelmed with emotion, there are two nervous systems at work here. Yes, two. You might think we have one nervous system, but actually, there are two. The first responds to stress with “fight, flight, or fright”. When there is a threat to survival, the “sympathetic nervous system” makes us scared. We may feel scared, we may suddenly feel like fighting to fend off an attack, or we respond by freezing – not moving an inch – as if this could help us become invisible to a threat.  

During threats, imagine what the body does. The heart beats faster to send blood churning towards muscles which tense to run, battle, or freeze. The lungs breathe harder to ensure the heart and these same muscles are getting enough oxygen. A lot of tension builds up in the musculature which pulls tight on our bones and enables us to move. Stress hormones (like epinephrine – formerly called adrenaline) circulate rapidly through the blood to dilate blood vessels to the muscles. The emotional centres of the brain reduce activity in the frontal lobes. Planning for a presentation at work, decision-making about where to go for a vacation, and other heady issues take a back-seat. We act without thinking. In a fraction of a second, we move from relaxed to tense, ready to defend our very lives.

Okay, I’ve managed to fend off the grizzly, I jumped out of the way of the car or boulder, and I get passed the initial shock of realizing my spouse has been having an affair and is leaving me. But the story has only begun. The tension built in these situations may actually be needed for some time. The hungry bear, out-of-control car, or fucking spouse could return at any time. The boulder was just a signal that an avalanche is coming. The tension is maintained. Anger is front and centre. Sadness and grief take a back-seat. No tears yet.

When we are finally out of physical danger, there has been an opportunity for the state of high tension maintained by the sympathetic nervous system to return to equilibrium, a process which Efran and Greene call “recalibration”. Realizing the threat to life and limb is no longer present, the body is allowed to “go off duty”. At this point, the parasympathetic nervous system finally kicks in. This calming system is less well known but is responsible for lowering the heart beat, slowing breathing, and relaxing the muscles. The release of epinephrine and other stress hormones subside. It is as if a friendly, soothing, and understanding touch comes from a safe person. At last, tears flow.

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