Why we cry and what to do to help someone who is crying

Of course, crying can be distressing, both for the person who is weeping, and the person who witnesses it. Sometimes we cry with sorrow, and sometimes we may shed tears of joy.  Crying can also be something of a mystery - even the person crying often reports that they don't know why they are crying.

Until recently, our understanding of why we cry hadn't moved much beyond Freud's model of catharsis. This 'steam-kettle' model of emotional release paints a slightly absurd picture that emotions are stored quantities of energy which will cause havoc if bottled up for too long, or released too abruptly. It also litters our language, for example, "blowing off steam" or "boiling over". Although this steam-kettle model may seem to make sense on the surface, it doesn't help us to understand why we cry when we are happy.

more physiological explanation proposed by Jay Efran suggests a two-stage theory of tears. He proposes that tears start to fall when a person shift's rapidly from a state of autonomic nervous system arousal and high tension to a state of recalibration and recovery. The shift from tension to recalibration and recovery is almost always accompanied by some sort of psychologically meaningful event, such as a child finally finding their parents after they have been lost in a supermarket for a while. When children get lost, typically they don't tend to cry when they first realise their parents have gone missing. Instead, they scan their environments and search for them, in a state of high alert and some considerable physiological tension. When mum or dad appear from around the corner, that's when the state of tension is relieved and the crying starts. The tears start to flow when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated - the second stage of the two stage cycle.

Of course, the parent is wondering why they have started to cry after they have re-appeared rather than when the child was lost - "Why are you crying? I'm here!" But the child's reaction, according to this theory is entirely predictable - wide-eyed hypervigilant scanning in stage 1, and an opening floodgate of tears in stage 2. When parents see crying in this situation, they can be assured that it means the child is relieved to see them. Some children in this situation may start to cry before they find their parent. For example, their physiological system may start to go off duty and shift from sympathetic arousal to more parasympathetic calming nervous system activity when a friendly shop assistant takes their hand and offers to help them find their parent. Or sometimes, they might burst into tears when they exhaust their repertoire for trying to solve a problem, or when they signal that they have temporarily given up the struggle with an intractable problem. Biologically, this serves a purpose in alerting potential helpers nearby that they are struggling, and also offers an opportunity to regroup.

The thing about this theory is that tears don't flow unless you have been in a state of some autonomic arousal, for whatever reason. However, in the midst of threat, we almost never cry - rather we cry when an opportunity for relief appears. For example, receiving bad news of a bereavement when you are away from home - traveling home stoically to be with your family - and then crying once you see a family member on your doorstep. at home. We perhaps try to maintain the 'stiff upper lip' to prevent ourselves from falling into a parasympathetic state where tears are more likely after a period of tension. We hunt around for things to do, to occupy our minds to prevent this progress into stage 2 of the theory of tears.

Typically, we actually cry when we feel safe. So, tears can offer a signal of willingness for others to help. Biologically, we may be more primed to help infants who cry. When we see an adult crying, we may not be so sure of what to do. What can we do to help someone in tears?

  • Sometimes we can feel compelled to do something, or to fix things. I know I can feel this. However, this can sometimes make things worse
  • Avoid crowding the crying person with your anxious hugs and soothing words. For some, it can feel a little uncomfortable to be overly fussed over when you are trying to figure out what is going on with your own experience in the here-and-now
  • Anxious inquiries about 'what's wrong' probably aren't so helpful at this point. That can wait until later. Remind yourself to relax. Crying probably means something is happening for that person - try not to rush it
  • Try to avoid undermining the person's reason for tears (There's no need to cry about that!), or give false reassurance (Everything will be fine!)
  • In all probability, the less said the better - if the crying person tries to explain, that's OK - but you don't need to explore it in detail right now
  • When we witness crying, it can feel like it is going on for a very long time. Typically, we overestimate how long a person has been crying for, because it can feel distressing for us to witness. People stop - they always do. Crying is a natural, adaptive process. Some people seem to have lots of ups and downs, and they may have furious bouts of self-criticism during their crying periods blaming themselves for 'breaking down', leading to a cycle of tension and relief, which may intensify their crying cycle.

Tears seem to be emotionally neutral. The label we attach to them are related to the context in which they occur. Both happy and sad tears follow the pattern of elevated tension followed by an event that triggers a biophysical shift to state that enables recalibration and recovery. If you want to help someone to move from a state of tension or high vigilance to a state where the parasympathetic system is more engaged, ask them to describe a pleasant or joyful time. But remember, the biophysical shift from tension to relaxation is likely to be accompanied by tears. Be prepared, and acknowledge what it will mean for you too.