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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
However, 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. Clinicians 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?” 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. There’ll be plenty of time for debriefing later.
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.
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?”
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.
Jay Efran, PhD, is emeritus professor of psychology at Temple University. He’s the coauthor of Language, Structure and Change: Frameworks of Meaning in Psychotherapy and The Tao of Sobriety.
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