When tears fail

Tears fail
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Tears and the processing of emotional hurt
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Although many individuals report ‘having a good cry’, there are others for whom crying brings no sense of relief, release or resolution.  They may cry for long periods of time with no appreciable change in the way they feel; they may even say they feel worse or ‘washed out’.  One might argue that if there is no change in their general situation, why should one expect them to feel better?  Even though tears may not bring back a loved one from the grave or restore a collapsed love affair, some cognitive (Nicols & Zax 1977, Bohart 1980) and biological changes (Van Haeringen 1981, Frey et al 1981) may nevertheless occur during crying.  This is how one woman who has successfully overcome depression put it:  “You need to acknowledge your tears and your sadness and see them as a valid reaction to things that are going on in your life .. I don’t necessarily feel better in that the feelings that led me to cry have gone.  I think it allows you to move on in some sense during the day you have a cry … and I think that crying is probably really good for you because it means that you’re forced to be in the moment and confront your feelings“.  The cognitive and emotional therapy she describes here is acceptance of the situation, acceptance of one’s feelings and living in the present.  Eugene Gendlin points out in ‘focusing’ (1981) and Focusing – oriented psychotherapy (1996) that simply finding a word or phrase that accurately captures a felt-sense can be immensely releasing, even though the situation it describes is unpalatable and unchanged.

Likewise, Carl Rodgers in ‘What it means to become a person’ (1954) and ‘A process conception of psychotherapy’ (1956) describes processes of increasing self awareness, self acceptance and openness to experience, which are the end points of psychotherapy and the mark of a fulfilled person.  One might say that in normal crying there are subtle experiential and cognitive attitudinal changes which enrich the self or take the person forwards, even if in a small way (eg experiential acceptance of loss).  So what happens in a bad cry?

Although psychological therapists often have clients who report no release in crying – a barrenness or repetitive recycling – I have been unable to find any literature on this phenomenon.  There is growing literature on a related phenomenon, ‘PC’ or pathological crying.  This has been described as inappropriate, unmotivated and involuntary crying which can be seen in stroke victims, MS sufferers, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and traumatic brain injury (Shaiband, Sabbagh & Klan 2001).  ‘Essential crying’ where no neurological contributory factors were identified, has also been described.  Pathological crying has helped identify the neurological mechanisms induced in normal crying.  Wilson (1924) suggested PC is produced by a disinhibition of crying and laughing centres in the brain stem, normally under cortical inhibitory control.  Parrizi et al 2001 implicate damage to the cerebro-ponto-cerebellar pathway. Why is crying the natural reaction to sadness?

Pathological crying is not however the same as unproductive crying.  The idea of ‘tears failing’ is predicated on relief or release representing ‘normal crying’.  Unproductive crying may be found in patients with negative patterns of thinking including, for instance, ideas of hopelessness, self loathing or negative beliefs about crying.  For instance, the patient quoted earlier referred to her previously depressive crying as follows:  “I think what you do while crying is important.  When I went through a period of depression, I used to cry and I would act hatefully to myself when I was crying.  I would be telling myself that I was stupid and dumb and ridiculous for feeling like this and being in this situation.  I’d be very angry at myself.  But I turned this around and tried a different tack and so when I was crying I’d try to console myself.  So in some way, talk to the inner child, if you like, and acknowledge any tears and be nice to myself and tell myself it was okay“.  It is possible that these types of negative thoughts eradicate any benefit that might come through tears.

Another possible explanation for unproductive crying would be a type of obsessive rumination in which the crier repeatedly visits the same distressing thoughts and memories without any positive changes or reconceptualisation taking place (Philippot & Rime 1998).  The same unchanged distress would be recycled with no sense of relief.

“Then Jove’s daughter Helen …. drugged the wine with an herb that banishes all care, sorrow and ill humour.  Whoever drinks wine thus drugged cannot shed a single tear all the rest of the day, not even though his father and mother both of them drop down dead, or he sees a brother or a son hewn in pieces before his very eyes”

The Odyssey