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 and Mitchell Greene, both with doctorate degrees, have some answers. They note 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.

* Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and is in private practice in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com or 610-388-2888. Past columns are posted to www.drgajdos.com.


About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.



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