Why We Cry

A Clinician’s Guide

Magazine Issue
May/June 2012
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At the site of the 2010 Chilean mine disaster, the son of miner Florencio Avalos burst into tears when his father was brought safely to the surface. Later that month, Caylee Anthony’s grandmother was shown weeping over her granddaughter’s death. How can two such totally different events—one joyful, one tragic—both elicit tears?

This question puzzles many clinicians, including some who are considered experts in the field of emotional expression. The problem is that few of us have received explicit training in theories of emotion. Therefore, our notions about tears and other forms of emotional release are still partly based on “steam-kettle thinking”—the culturally pervasive but biologically absurd notion that emotions are stored quantities of energy, which, like steam, wreak havoc when bottled up too long or released too abruptly. Our everyday language is rife with steam-kettle metaphors. We talk about “blowing off steam,” being “flooded with emotion,” “boiling over” with rage, and “feeling drained” after a good cry. The Freudian theory of catharsis is basically a steam-kettle model, and so are various expressive therapies, such as psychodrama, primal scream, reevaluation counseling, and Gestalt therapy. Similarly, remnants of steam-kettle theory can be found in current approaches toward regulation, stress reduction, and anger management.

The history of the field’s views on emotional release harks back to the days when skulls were trephined to release evil spirits, purgatives were administered to rid the body of toxins, and leeches were applied to purify the blood. Obviously, it’s high time to root out the vestiges of these ancient practices and bring our understanding of emotional dynamics into the 21st century. Steam-kettle thinking may have intuitive appeal, but it doesn’t provide an adequate guide for dealing with emotionally distressed clients. Moreover, it doesn’t help us answer the question of why people cry when they’re happy. Although our focus here is on tears, the theory we’re about to describe also applies to other forms of emotional expression, including fits of laughter, fearful trembling, and angry outbursts.

The Two-Stage Theory of Tears

Physiologically speaking, emotional tears are elicited when a person’s system shifts rapidly from sympathetic to parasympathetic activity—from a state of high tension to a period of recalibration and recovery. Depending on the circumstances, individuals typically describe such shifts as “letting go,” “going off duty,” or “giving up.” Of course, nothing is literally “released” when these biophysical changes occur, although the person’s adrenaline level drops and the body relaxes.

The shift from arousal to recovery is almost always triggered by a psychologically meaningful event, such as when lost children finally spot their parents and realize that they’re safe. Typically, children don’t cry when they first realize that their parents are gone; instead, they become hypervigilant and start searching for their missing caretakers. It’s only when the parents reappear—perhaps rounding the corner of the supermarket aisle—that their child “goes off duty,” and tears begin to flow. In other words, tears are elicited during the second, parasympathetic, phase of the two-stage cycle we’re describing. Again, the child usually remains dry-eyed during the initial, problem-solving phase. Evidence for this two-stage cycle has been found in multiple studies. Using physiological measures, such as heart rate, researchers documented the “handoff” from the initial fight-or-flight stage to the parasympathetic recovery stage, in which tears occur.

When parents reconnect with a lost child, they often wonder why he or she picks that time to cry, now that the danger is past. They frequently say something like, “I’m here now; why are you crying?” Or worse yet, “You’d better stop crying right this minute, or I’ll give you something to cry about!” However, the child’s physiological reaction is entirely appropriate: wide-eyed scanning in phase one, copious tears in phase two. Parents ought to be pleased, because the crying indicates that the child is comforted by their presence.

Although the two-stage arousal–recovery cycle is basically a biological invariant, certain factors affect the timing. Some children—depending on age, temperament, and background—will cry before their parent appears. They may feel safe enough to “go off duty” when, let’s say, a sympathetic store clerk takes them by the hand, offering to help. Young children frequently burst into stage-two tears whenever they exhaust their problem-solving resources, even if no adult is in sight. In evolutionary terms, such meltdowns undoubtedly contribute to survival by alerting nearby caretakers that assistance is required. This works well because under ordinary child-rearing circumstances (what biologists call the “average expectable environment”), potential helpers are almost always within earshot.

Tears are most easily triggered in response to a friendly gesture, a sympathetic voice, a familiar face, or other signs of safety. By contrast, we almost never cry at the height of a crisis, in the presence of enemies, or during periods of unrelieved sadness. One of the authors remembers being out of town when he learned of his father’s death. He successfully remained stoic while he was out in public and navigating a long bus ride home; however, he burst into tears as soon as he saw his mother waiting at the doorstep. The wordless glance they exchanged communicated that the family would survive the current crisis—a message that allowed the author to “relax” into a tearful reunion.

Although the culture is gradually becoming more gender neutral, men still have more difficulty crying in public than women. Perhaps because of their traditional roles as warriors and protectors, they’re expected to remain stalwart and avoid showing any sign of weakness to potential adversaries. Today, a common struggle plays out in movie theaters across the land. When the lights turn on at the end of some sappy romantic comedy, many men feel compelled to keep their faces taut in order to forestall being seen with tears rolling down their cheeks. By maintaining facial tension—the proverbial “stiff upper lip”—they can temporarily postpone the shift into parasympathetic activity while they hunt for something else to think about.

Men may experience “face loss” when they cry in therapy for the first time and their embarrassment is sometimes sufficient to keep them from returning for further sessions. To preempt such reactions, we typically warn men that they may feel “funny” about having cried, but that tears in therapy are a good sign, indicating courage and strength, rather than weakness. Unsurprisingly, female politicians, such as Hillary Clinton, are still obliged to avoid welling up in public if they expect to be perceived as strong leaders.

We’ve already discussed examples of situations in which tears emerge because a problem has been solved and the system can “go off duty”; however, adults and children sometimes cry in connection with problems that haven’t yet been solved, and perhaps never will be. In these instances, tears indicate that the person is at least temporarily giving up the struggle. Although this is commonly thought of as a “breakdown,” we optimistically consider it a potential breakthrough. By backing away from an overwhelming issue, the system can husband its resources and regroup for a fresh assault. This is a bit like putting a frustrating puzzle aside for the night and tackling it again in the morning, after a good night’s sleep. Because we typically cry when we feel safe, the person’s tears can suggest a willingness to enlist the help of others—perhaps the therapist, a spouse, or another trusted ally.

Years ago, a client was involved in an auto accident. As soon as she realized she hadn’t been seriously injured, she got out of her car, coolly assessed the situation, and proceeded to assist the other passengers. Shortly after the ambulance arrived, she sat down on a nearby curb and began to weep. Onlookers feared that she was experiencing some sort of delayed traumatic reaction, but they needn’t have worried. The arrival of the ambulance workers simply permitted her to move to the sidelines and relax enough to have “a good cry.” By the way, the pleasure of a good cry has virtually nothing to do with the number of tears shed. It’s the parasympathetic changes associated with the recovery phase that both feel good and are restorative for the system.

Although phase-two recuperation is almost always healthy for the system, many clinicians overreact to an adult’s tears. Our evolutionary programming, geared to raising infants, prompts us to launch into emergency action when anyone cries. We feel obliged to help, but with adults, we may not be sure what to do.

When a friend’s wife was having surgery, he spent hours pacing back and forth in the hospital waiting room. The surgeon finally appeared at the doorway and beckoned him to step outside. As he walked toward the surgeon, his anticipation level reached astronomical heights. When the surgeon announced that the operation had gone extremely well, the husband slumped to the floor and began to sob. Through his tears, he noticed a look of panic on the surgeon’s face. As he later explained, “The poor guy didn’t know what to do with me. He was speechless. I wound up having to pat him on the back and assure him that I was fine.” Evidently, the surgeon wasn’t used to seeing a grown man dissolve into tears, especially in response to good news, yet the husband’s sobs were an outward indication that his system was going off duty and efficiently replenishing its resources following the prolonged period of stress.

Like the surgeon in our story, clinicians too can feel an urge to rush in and “fix things” that aren’t broken. This often makes matters worse. Therefore, in accordance with our theoretical model and clinical experience, we offer some suggested dos and don’ts for dealing with adult clients who are crying.

The first rule is to avoid “crowding” the client with an anxious flurry of pats and hugs. If you’ve cried recently yourself, you may remember how uncomfortable it is to be fussed over at a time when you’re trying to remain connected to your experience. Tearful individuals need a relaxed, safe space in which to process their thoughts and feelings—frantic attention isn’t helpful. This is exactly the wrong time to pepper them with questions about why they’re crying or anxious inquiries about “what’s wrong?” There’ll be plenty of time for debriefing later.

Because the urge to “do something” is strong, we have to remind ourselves to relax in the presence of adult tears and allow the natural recovery phase to run its course. When a person is crying, there should be no hurry to move on in a session. Over the years, our therapeutic mantra has been “If tears are flowing, something worthwhile is happening.” Either there’s been a meaningful breakthrough, or—as we indicated earlier—the person is giving up an approach that wasn’t working.

A good rule of thumb is that as long as tears are flowing freely, you don’t have to do anything. OK, if you happen to be seated close enough (and the relationship permits), you might lightly touch the tearful person’s arm just to let him or her know that you’re fully present. Similarly, you might offer a tissue or gesture toward the tissue box. Anything more can be intrusive and counterproductive.

Certainly avoid the temptation—generated by your own anxiety—to delegitimize the person’s tears (“There’s no need to cry about it!”) or to issue false reassurances (“Everything will be fine!”). Even professionals, who ought to know better, sometimes feel an urge to stop the person from crying, as if stopping the tears would eliminate the problem. This is a bit like trying to fix a car by disconnecting the “check engine” light.

Because we want our clients to stay in touch with their experience, we gently wave off their attempts to explain, justify, or apologize for their tears (e.g., “I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean to do this”). At this point, verbal interchange is the enemy—the less said the better. When a client is in the midst of a crying episode, it’s best to avoid fancy interpretations, even if you’re sure they’re right on target.

When the tearful episode winds down, we typically ask, “What’s the thought that helped you cry?” That question tends to elicit more tears (and additional stress reduction). Notice that we say “what helped you cry” rather than “what made you cry.” We learned to use that subtle positive connotation from Harvey Jackins, the originator of Re-evaluation Counseling and an expert on the mechanisms of emotional expression. Jackins taught that, paradoxically, the best way to elicit a person’s feelings is to ask about his or her thoughts. Instead of asking “How do you feel?” ask “What are you thinking?” The “feelings” question too often produces vague generalities (“I’m feeling sad”) or unhelpful descriptions of body sensations (“There is a dull ache in my midsection”). By contrast, asking about the person’s thoughts gets us closer to the images and recollections that ease the shift from upset to recovery. For instance, in response to being asked about his thoughts, a grieving son replied, “I keep remembering me and my father being in a rowboat together. He kept apologizing because we hadn’t caught any fish. I wanted to explain that it didn’t matter, but I couldn’t get the words out [more tears]. How come I could never tell him how much I loved him?”

Note that as participant–observers we typically overestimate how long clients have been crying. A few minutes of tears may seem like an eternity, prompting the therapist to wonder whether clients will ever stop. They always do. Keep in mind that crying is a natural, adaptive process, and the best policy is to let it run its course. Some people seem to have an inexhaustible supply of tears, partly because of their system lability. They may castigate themselves for “breaking down” whenever they tear up. This generates a cycle of rising and falling tension, resulting in bouts of sobbing punctuated by flurries of self-criticism.

Defining Emotion

Explicit definitions of emotion are a rarity in the mental health literature. We’ve read entire books about the role of emotion in therapy in which the term is never defined. Yet the lack of definitional specificity hampers the development of theory and technique, so we’ll attempt to fill this gap by suggesting that term emotion be reserved for the body postures and hormonal settings that form the necessary support system for our actions. Fighting, for instance, is a high-emotion state, requiring elevated adrenaline levels and a tense musculature; sleeping, a low-emotion state, requires just the opposite. In similar fashion, one can calculate the optimal biophysical and related emotional profile for any particular class of actions.

In our ordinary language, we talk as if we have emotions only once in a while, such as when we’re experiencing great passion, overwhelming hopelessness, abject terror, or all-consuming anger; however, in our lexicon, all our tasks have an emotional underpinning, including when we cook dinner, read a novel, or take out the trash. Even calm, deliberate, problem-solving requires a rather specific set of bodily calibrations: if you’re too aroused, you can’t think straight; if you’re too relaxed, you’re apt to lose track of the problem. Thus, as biologist Humberto Maturana notes, “understanding” should be considered a legitimate and important emotional state. He uses the term “emotional contradiction” to describe the temporary mismatches between our biochemistry and our circumstances. For example, we arrive home after an argument with a coworker. Our spouse is waiting at the door, expecting a tender kiss. However, because we’re still fuming over what happened at the office, we can’t switch gears fast enough to be affectionate. Fighting and affiliating require different body postures and hormonal settings, and the biochemistry needs a bit of time to catch up. So, for the moment, the best we can do is offer our spouse a perfunctory peck, perhaps accompanied by a mumbled explanation about why we aren’t “in the mood.”

Technically speaking, tears, laughter, tantrums, and trembling aren’t emotions: they’re outward signs of abrupt shifts in neurophysiology. We’ve already explained that tears are triggered by the change from sympathetic to parasympathetic functioning. Without going into detail, we can add that laughter is the expected response to the resolution of ambiguity, tantrums are a vigorous form of protest, and shivers signal the dissipation of fear.

If emotions are merely biophysical settings, and tears, laughter, tantrums, and trembling are just indications of biochemical shifts, why do so many clinicians continue to believe that pounding pillows and other cathartic rituals have curative powers? An ingenious social psychology experiment conducted years ago, designed to test catharsis theory, sheds light on this question. Participants were first insulted. Then they were given an opportunity to get even with the perpetrator directly or listen passively while someone else defended their reputation. As it turned out, it didn’t matter how much personal energy individuals consumed redressing the grievance they’d suffered: as long as they felt that the score had been settled, their mood returned to normal. What was important was the restoration of their self-esteem, not the amount of energy they expended defending themselves. This suggests that such rituals as pounding pillows are useful only to the extent that they result in positive self-esteem changes. If the social context is right, people can feel more powerful and effective as they pretend to get even with their boss (as represented by the pillow).

Alexis had been abruptly fired from a job she’d held for 20 years. To add insult to injury, a security guard was assigned to watch her pack her things and escort her off the premises. She wasn’t even given a chance to say good-bye to the other members of her department. Later, she heard through the grapevine that her departure was being blamed on her unwillingness to adapt to change.

She felt furious each time she relived that day. Her reputation had been unfairly tarnished, and she’d been denied her day in court. There was no place for her to tell her side of the story or seek compensation for the injustices she felt she’d endured. From our perspective, she hadn’t “stored” her anger for later “release.” Anger is recreated when the person recalls what happened. Such recollections can generate postures and hormonal settings similar to the original incident, although not always at the same level.

Joining a therapy group proved a useful place for Alexis to gain closure about her situation. The group members were quite supportive and chimed in with their own tales of corporate malfeasance. She learned from the others that hustling fired employees out of the building under a guard’s scrutiny is standard practice in some industries. Thus, the way she was treated wasn’t necessarily a personal slur on her character. She discovered that she wasn’t alone in experiencing doubts about her self-worth after having been fired, even though she’d had a successful career up until that point. Through the group process, she regained her self-confidence and got back into the job market. In this case, pounding pillows and shouting epithets at an imaginary supervisor wasn’t necessary: it was sufficient that she received enough social validation to heal her bruised ego.

Because the social setting is crucial to the outcome, it can be a mistake to follow the advice of steam-kettle advocates about the value of expressing all feelings. One of the authors served as a faculty advisor for an experimental dormitory problem-solving group. In the middle of the first meeting, one of the students felt compelled to “get off his chest” that he had sexual feelings for his male roommate. This disclosure created a nightmare for the residence staff: the straight roommate insisted on an immediate dorm transfer, and the devastated gay student threatened suicide and was briefly hospitalized by the student health service. That was the end of the dormitory group program. Again, the benefits and hazards of expressing feelings depends almost entirely on the characteristics of the social setting.

The Emotional Neutrality of Tears

We’d now like to return to the question we posed in our opening paragraph: how can happy and sad events both elicit tears? People are puzzled by the question because they automatically equate tears with sadness. In fact, tears are neither happy nor sad; they’re simply manifestations of the shift from arousal to recovery. The labels we attach to them depend entirely on the context in which they occur. For instance, the tears of the Chilean miner’s son would probably be called “tears of relief” or “tears of joy”; by contrast, the tears shed by Cindy Anthony, Caylee’s grandmother, would undoubtedly be considered “tears of grief.” The two situations aren’t as distinct as they appear. In both cases, elevated tension is followed by an event that triggers a biophysical shift. The miner’s son was worried about his father’s welfare, but he was instantly relieved to see his father emerge unharmed from the rescue capsule. In Anthony’s case, we have less information about how the event unfolded. Even if we could have asked her about it at the time, she might not have been able to provide an accurate report about what triggered her tears. This is because people in the midst of a tearful episode are typically too busy having the experience to be able to analyze it. Yet we can surmise that she was under considerable stress talking to the press about her granddaughter’s death. The tears may have been caused by a sympathetic response from the reporter or a momentary image of a happier time with Caylee. In fact, if you want to trigger a parasympathetic shift in clients who’ve suffered a loss, it’s useful to ask them to recall a pleasant or joyful time they spent with the deceased individual. This will elicit tears more regularly than descriptions of the funeral or the circumstances surrounding the person’s death.

Because life events can be difficult to analyze in real time, we’ve found it useful to study the emergence of tears by examining audience reactions to key scenes in various plays and films. Consider the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. In the final scene, Anna—about to leave Siam because of her disagreements with the king—learns that he’s dying and feels compelled to pay him a last visit. Audience members are saddened that the king is ill and worried that the disputes between him and Anna won’t be resolved. Although these events provoke tension, they don’t elicit tears. When Anna visits the king’s bedside, he first scolds her for abandoning her work with his children, reminding her that she’s leaving the country of her own free will, while he’s “just . . . leaving.”

In the dialogue that follows, Anna and the king subtly acknowledge their admiration and love for each other, and the audience senses that the rift between them is beginning to heal. At a pivotal moment, the king urges his eldest son, the heir to the throne, to begin making royal proclamations to “practice” for his new role as ruler. The boy first decrees that New Year’s is to be celebrated with boat races (he likes boat races). Then, more hesitantly, he decrees that members of the court will no longer bow to the king “in fashion of lowly toad,” but instead will bow from the waist, in the more dignified Western tradition. Thinking that he might have gone too far, the prince turns to his father for reassurance: “You are angry with me, my father?” The king replies, “Why do you ask question? If you are king, you are king. You do not ask questions of sick man—nor of woman! [Pointing a finger at Anna.] This proclamation against bowing I believe to be your fault!” Anna replies, “Oh, I hope so, Your Majesty. I do hope so.” The audience weeps.

The audience isn’t crying simply out of sadness. Tears are always about something specific: an image, thought, or memory that changes the psychological and neurophysiological equation. In this case, tears flow because the king finally acknowledges—before it’s too late—his feelings for Anna and the importance of her contributions to the kingdom.

But it would be misleading to say that these are entirely tears of sadness at the king’s impending death. The emotion, as it so often is in art and life, is more complicated than any simple formulation. Throughout the play, we’ve felt the constant tension between the liberated Victorian Anna, with her Western outlook and modern view of the equality of men and women, and the old-fashioned King, whose good heart is often at odds with his outdated approach to ruling his kingdom. The world is changing, and we feel some relief that the new, more forward-looking young king is more prepared to lead his people into this new age. Our tears flow as we watch Anna and the king share a moment in which, each in their own indirect way, acknowledges what they’ve meant to each other and the depth of their bond. We can leave the theater teary-eyed, finally released from the grip of this touching play, feeling somehow complete and ready to go home.


Photo © Bloomberg / Getty Images

Jay Efran

Jay Efran, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Temple University.  He received the Pennsylvania Psychological Association’s 2009 award for Distinguished Contributions to the Science and Profession of Psychology and is co-author of Language, Structure and Change and The Tao of Sobriety.


Mitchell Greene

Mitchell Greene, PhD, is in private practice in Wayne, Pennsylvania.