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Tears and the processing of emotional hurt
In June 2003, Cate Butler, who was researching for a column in BBC Eve Magazine called ‘1001 things every woman should know’, emailed asking if I could provide an answer to one of those 1001 questions. It was ‘why does a good cry help?’ At first, I thought it was easy and could be knocked off in about 20 minutes but the more I thought about it, the more complicated it seemed to get. This was the eventual reply, after many re-writes …
Crying is the translation of psychologically experienced distress into a physical form, which helps to reduce the feeling of distress. The physical process of translation shares similarities with laughter, involving muscular spasms, rapid intake of breath and tears reaching a crescendo and then gradually calming. During this process, bodily tension is racked up and then relaxed, giving a feeling of release and tears externalise and symbolise the psychological hurt in a physical form.
Crying is a natural human response to distress. Children, particularly boys, learn to inhibit crying for painful events, reserving tears for emotional distress. All cultures and nationalities cry, though different families and cultures have varying ‘rules’ for how crying should be expressed in an acceptable manner.
A cry is not always ‘good’. Sometimes crying brings no sense of release and the person does not feel better afterwards.
Postscript for Sarah and Matt – I enclose some thoughts about emotional processing and crying which I did not include in my reply but thought might interest you.
I think there are probably two parts of crying, one obvious and short term – the physiological pattern causing feelings of release and one hidden, which is more to do with how we adjust to the distress in the longer term. Some sources of distress like an argument may be sorted out by one cry; others such as the death of someone close take a long time to adjust to. Inadvertently in crying the person is aiding the emotional processing of the hurt experience. It means they are mentally facing and accepting the event that has upset them and allowing the natural response of crying to occur. This allows emotional processing to proceed, weakening the power of the thoughts to upset them (possibly through exposure and habituation). Each time upsetting thoughts are faced and reacted to, their power is weakened so that gradually emotional hurts become less painful.