Mind Matters—Why We Cry

Have you ever wanted to cry and couldn’t? Or didn’t know what “to do” when a loved one bursts into tears? Why do we cry anyway?

Jay Efran, PhD, and Mitchell Greene, PhD, have some answers. They note in the The May/June issue of Psychotherapy Networker that tears are a manifestation of an individual’s physiological system shifting rapidly from sympathetic to parasympathetic activity. That is, the person swiftly goes “from a state of high tension to a period of recalibration and recovery.” The transition from arousal to recovery is usually initiated by a “psychologically meaningful event.”

It is not in the crisis that we cry; it is actually when we feel safe enough “to go off duty.” For example, a child generally doesn’t cry when temporarily lost and separated from the parent. He or she instead goes into search mode—hyper-vigilance—first. Then, when the child spots the parent, or someone deemed as a safe helper, the tears flow. Efran and Greene explain that tears occur in the second phase of a two-stage biological cycle. First is the high tension followed by the recovery.

What is necessary is being able to move into the second stage to recalibrate our physiology and for that—our crying—we need safety. Ever notice how both children and adults may respond to a friendly face or sympathetic gesture with tears? Hardly ever do we cry, assert Efran and Greene, in the middle of a crisis, in the presence of enemies, or in bouts of unremitting sadness.

But we may also feel safe enough to cry when we surrender to some unsolvable situation. Perhaps there is something in our life that we just can’t change and we open up to our tears. Often this gets dubbed a “breakdown.” Efran and Greene nicely reframe this, instead, as a breakthrough! Or, as Carl Jung, would say, “We don’t solve our problems, we outgrow them.” Here tears become a sign of growth.

Because crying is natural and adaptive, we need to let ourselves and others experience them! Tears are nothing to fear. In fact, they are outward signs of a physiological shift from arousal to recovery. And they are neutral: sometimes we cry when we are happy; sometimes when we are sad. Context defines them. Yet, in either case, the physiology is about a movement from transition to recalibration.

Most importantly, we need to allow our tears and the tears of our loved ones to flow. Tears signal safety: nothing to solve, or stop, or fix. Just be.