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The Muddled Tracks of All Those Tears
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The Muddled Tracks of All Those Tears
By BENEDICT CAREY
Published: February 2, 2009
They’re considered a release, a psychological tonic, and to many a glimpse of something deeper: the heart’s own sign language, emotional perspiration from the well of common humanity.
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Tears lubricate love songs and love, weddings and funerals, public rituals and private pain, and perhaps no scientific study can capture their many meanings.
“I cry when I’m happy, I cry when I’m sad, I may cry when I’m sharing something that’s of great significance to me,” said Nancy Reiley, 62, who works at a women’s shelter in Tampa, Fla., “and for some reason I sometimes will cry when I’m in a public speaking situation.
“It has nothing to do with feeling sad or vulnerable. There’s no reason I can think of why it happens, but it does.”
Now, some researchers say that the common psychological wisdom about crying — crying as a healthy catharsis — is incomplete and misleading. Having a “good cry” can and usually does allow people to recover some mental balance after a loss. But not always and not for everyone, argues a review article in the current issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Placing such high expectation on a tearful breakdown most likely sets some people up for emotional confusion afterward.
This call for a more nuanced view of crying stems partly from a critique of previous studies. Over the years, psychologists have confirmed many common observations about crying. It is infectious. Women break down more easily and more often than men, for reasons that are very likely biochemical as well as cultural. And the physical experience mirrors the psychological one: heart rate and breathing peak during the storm and taper off as the sky clears.
When asked about tearful episodes, most people, as expected, insist that the crying allowed them to absorb a blow, to feel better and even to think more clearly about something or someone they had lost.
At least that’s the way they remember it — and that’s the rub, said Jonathan Rottenberg, a psychologist at the University of South Florida and a co-author of the review paper. “A lot of the data supporting the conventional wisdom is based on people thinking back over time,” he said, “and it’s contaminated by people’s beliefs about what crying should do.”
Just as researchers have found that people tend, with time, to selectively remember the best parts of their vacations (the swim-up bars and dancing) and forget the headaches, so crying may also appear cathartic in retrospect. Memory tidies up the mixed episodes — the times when tears brought more shame than relief, more misery than company.
In a study published in the December issue of The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Dr. Rottenberg, along with Lauren M. Bylsma of the University of South Florida and Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, asked 5,096 people in 35 countries to detail the circumstances of their most recent crying episode. About 70 percent said that others’ reactions to their breakdown were positive, comforting. But about 16 percent cited nasty or angry reactions that, no surprise, generally made them feel worse.
Given that the most obvious social function of crying is to rally support and sympathy, the emotional impact of the tears depends partly on who is around and what they do. The study found crying with just one other person present was significantly more likely to produce a cathartic effect than doing so in front of a larger group. “Almost all emotions are, at some level, directed at others, so their response is going to be very important,” said James J. Gross, a psychologist at Stanford.
The experience of crying also varies from person to person, and some are more likely than others to find catharsis. In laboratory studies, psychologists induce crying by showing participants short clips of very sad movie scenes, like from “The Champ” or “Steel Magnolias.” Those who break down — typically about 40 percent of women, very few men — then report directly on the experience. These kinds of studies, though no more than a simulation of lived experience, suggest that people with symptoms of depression and anxiety do not get as worked up, nor recover as fast, as most people do. In surveys, they are also less likely than most to report psychological benefits from crying.
People who are confused about the sources of their own emotions — a condition that in the extreme is called alexithymia — also tend to report little benefit from a burst of tears, studies have found. This makes some sense. One purpose of crying may be to block thinking, to effectively seal off the flood of unanswerable questions that come after any major loss, the better to clarify those that are most important or most practical. If this psychological system is already clunky, a fire shower of tears is not likely to improve it.
In her book “Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment,” Judith Kay Nelson, a therapist and teacher living in Berkeley, Calif., argues that the experience of crying is rooted in early childhood and people’s relationship with their primary caregiver, usually a parent. Those whose parents were attentive, soothing their cries when needed, tend to find that crying also provides them solace as adults. Those whose parents held back, or became irritated or overly upset by the child’s crying, often have more difficulty soothing themselves as adults.
“Crying, for a child, is a way to beckon the caregiver, to maintain proximity and use the caregiver to regulate mood or negative arousal,” Dr. Nelson said in a phone interview. Those who grow up unsure of when or whether that soothing is available can, as adults, get stuck in what she calls protest crying — the child’s helpless squall for someone to fix the problem, undo the loss.
“You can’t work through grief if you’re stuck in protest crying, which is all about fixing it, fixing the loss,” Dr. Nelson said. “And in therapy — as in close relationships — protest crying is very hard to soothe, because you can’t do anything right, you can’t undo the loss. On the other hand, sad crying that is an appeal for comfort from a loved one is a path to closeness and healing.”
Tears can cleanse, all right. But like a flash flood, they may also leave a person feeling stranded, and soaked.
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