Saturday, April 30, 2016

Psychology of Crying

I recently ran into an article in Time Magazine on "Why we Cry" (March 7 2016), and was surprised to learn that it is a very active field of study. More intriguing was the claim that nobody really knows why we weep and experts consider it a confounding mystery.  In fact the article laments as to "the surprising dearth of hard facts about so fundamental a part of the human experience." Per that article only humans cry for emotional reasons. Other animals tear up too, but as a reflex reaction to pain or irritation.
Now for a long time I have been convinced that quite a few physical illnesses, in which mucosal secretions are central to the pathology, are a form of crying. As a child when we get helpless and see no possibility of escaping out of our distress but through the intervention of our caretakers we cry. But as we grow older and helplessness and dependency upon others becomes acknowledgment of weakness we increasingly lessen crying from the eyes and instead do so from mucosal surfaces that are hidden from the view of others. The ones that are contiguous with the eyes are of course the most preferred for this displaced crying, and sinuses, along with other parts of respiratory tracts, are the surfaces most used for it. However, intestinal and genitourinary tracts, even skin as in weeping eczema, also secrete unnecessary flood of mucus when one is under stress as a displaced form of crying. 
Now what is common among all these catarrh, whether they are secreted from the lining of the respiratory tract as in bronchitis, or from stomach as in hyperacidity, or from colon as in Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or from bladder as in interstitial cystitis, is that they are all in response to some irritation. They are all attempts to drown a foreign (irritating) object in a seaload of mucus and flush it out of the tract.
While the original irritants, which initiated this evolutionary adaptation, were purely physical in nature, over time, psychological irritants could also provoke the same response. In the latter it is a physical counter-irritant (displaced) response undertaken to lessen the psychological pain. When somebody, acting as an irritant to our psyche, is causing us emotional pain, disturbing our mental harmony, but who we cannot flush out off our mind/consciousness, an attempt is made by the body to search for some physical irritant in our sinuses, respiratory or intestinal tract etc. and pick the one that is genetically most sensitive in one's self and already has some organic problem, and start secreting mucus in it, way more than what the physical irritation already existing there justifies. This divides our attention between two sources of irritation, physical and mental, bringing relief to the latter.  Furthermore this process of flushing out the physical irritant sends signals to the brain that something is being done to get rid of whatever is irritating one, which is felt as across-the-board relief from tensions and increases the sense of one's overall well being (perhaps through secretion of dopamine). Doing something about anything is better than doing nothing. The process is not too dissimilar from how psychological irritant which is causing unrelenting pain in the mind, and which is constantly activating the need to do something about it, such as memory of sexual abuse, rage at an abusive husband, constant pressure of a deviant sexual impulse, is relieved by self-cutting or getting some body part like nose or tongue pierced or getting tattoos impaled upon oneself. This viewpoint of mine was further strengthened by a patient who I evaluated yesterday. She suffers from the disorder of scratching herself till it bleeds. It started after her younger brother was shot to death in South West Detroit. They never found the culprit. Then her mother died of brain aneurysm. The two things made her lose control of herself and she started doing things that she would not have done if she had better control of herself. She divorced her husband without good reason, and got married to someone without sufficient justification.. The second husband was verbally abusive and while she was driving with him to their lake cottage her husband began what she termed as relentless bitching. "I could not stop him. I could not jump out of the car. I could not tune him out. And so I began scratching myself as if to get him out of my skin, and then it bled. The relief was immense. From that time onward I found that whenever he bothered me beyond a point, or the memory of my dead brother and mother came back and got more than I could handle, I resorted to scratching and scratching till I bled. It is no different than how teenagers cut themselves. They cut, I scratch. The purpose is the same. It substitutes one pain for the other. The second pain feels better than the first because I have control over it. One is the author and not at its mercy as happens with the first pain, the mental pain".
The eyes were the first to evolve as a counter-irritant surface to deflect attention from emotional pain  to the physical one and for the following reason. They being extremely important apparatus for survival, the mucosal secretion in them for even the slightest irritant is immediate and copious and hence most easy to provoke. Furthermore their location on the face made them most suitable for catching the attention of those who could lessen the baby's emotional pain. So emotional crying seems to have the same nature as self-cutting, or banging one's head against the wall: deflection of attention from mental to physical anguish. 
Now it is not necessary that the emotional irritant has to be that of pain or suffering. Anything overwhelming, whether physical or psychological, that upsets the body's homeostasis beyond a certain point will trigger crying. So sudden success, even of others, with whom one can identify, can trigger tears of joy. It is as if too much joy in oneself will provoke attack from adverse forces/one's rivals/competitors, and hence one must put restraints upon one's joy by crying in order to not make others too envious.
The psychology here is a little complicated but it works this way: if only my rivals can see my success it will cause them so much pain that they will start crying. And while enjoying one's success (or the success of someone with whom one identifies; which explains why we cry tears of joy at other people's success too) one also identifies with the rivals' suffering and does the crying for them. So the two contrary emotions are felt at the same time: the pleasure of triumph and the suffering of the rivals. It is like doubling up of one's achievement, expressing not only one's happiness but the enemy's defeat as well. Anyway basically it is not triumph and joy that triggers the tears but always pain and suffering that lies behind crying. 
So the tears are always a reflection of pain. And since the function of pain is for us to withdraw from whatever we are engaged at, it behooves us to examine whether the behaviors which one typically associates with crying are not a reflection of our attempt to withdraw from the world. The article in Time give a number of motor behaviors that occur in crying. A scrutiny of them shows them to be components of behaviors that one undertakes to run away from a situation, disengage from the world. 
Let us see what the Time article lists as behaviors that accompany crying: forcing your eyes shut, pressing your lips, touching your eyes, wiping, pressing your lips, swallowing, blowing your nose, self-soothing touches, quivering of lip, sighing, hiding your face, making sudden jerky moves, gazing up.
Forcing your eyes shut, gazing up, hiding your face are clearly acts of withdrawal, refusing to see what is happening. Pressing of lips can be interpreted as refusing to imbibe, finding the situation unpalatable.
Wiping eyes and blowing nose is part of the flow of mucus and a natural response to keep one's   appearance clean and presentable, and perhaps counter-moves to negate withdrawal and once more be attractive to the world. .
Jerky movements of the head may be a component to attempt to run away from the stressful situation - a kind of tic. Tics being a small component of complex motor action that a person wants to undertake either to fight or flee away from the frightening situation but which has come under repression with only that small component managing to find expression, discharging the entire energy of the complex motor response through it. 
Quivering of the lips also appears to be part of  fear response and can be looked upon as a form of tic; uncoordinated motor activity where individual muscles want to break through, seeking their own discharge instead of working in coordination, as happens in severe anxiety where fasciculations may replace purposive goal directed motor movements.
Sighing in crying appears to be taking a deep breath to abort the desire (a counter-move) to stop breathing altogether and die - the ultimate withdrawal from the world.
The article also raises the issue of how anger and grief can trigger emotional crying and it is not hard to interpret why. Anger is a sign of frustration and helplessness. We get angry when we can do nothing about something that is bothering us. Well, we can of course attack the jerk who is making us angry, and this is what happens a lot in those whose prefrontal cortex is unable to put restraints upon physical aggression, but a lot of times the realization that giving vent to that anger in physical aggression will lead to even greater problems, we are left with no choice but to deal with it with helplessness and tears, especially in women who because of their frailer built have less option to resort to violence when angry. So tears that flow down their cheeks when angry are really a reflection of helplessness.
In grief we cry so the departed person can see our tears and end his absence and return once again to do for us what we were accustomed to receiving from him. It is no different than a child's crying for its parents. Crying in grief for the dead person must be distinguished from crying that is often accompanied by loud wailing, and other exaggerated manifestations of sorrow, that one often sees in funeral home and which is more a drama to hide one's feelings of triumph at having scored one over the dead person, outlasting him. The exaggeration is to prevent the signs of pleasure making it to the surface and if they do come up as laughter over some subject unrelated to the death it can be quickly covered by the loud wailing and crying. But often these "crocodile tears" are admixed with genuine tears of grief so one should not look down too harshly upon human beings tendency to feel pleasure at others death. We are a highly ambivalent species 
Grief is mostly about working out of one's system the ambivalent feelings one has had towards the dead person. Often the crying that accompanies grieving is because the departed person has not just done us good but done us harm as well and we hopelessly cry for him because the possibility of getting even with him is now lost forever.
We may also do the dead person's crying for him. We reason how sad he must feel, with his disembodied spirit watching, as we go on doing our usual things which he is no longer part of. And we cry to show him how much we are not enjoying this lovely world but are crying and being miserable and with this we hope to not arouse his wrath over our having fun of which he is not a party.
Our crying over somebody, who once was a commanding figure in our life, like a parent or a mentor or a great hero, but who due to ravages of time has now turned frail and decrepit, barely able to move, unable to even hold himself up let alone command us, is out of deference, showing pain and suffering at what he once was and what he has now become. It is an attempt to preserve his higher and our subordinate position despite what it really is in reality. The crying is an attempt to envelope him in one's tears and wash away all his frailties and restore him back to his strong and proud self that he once was.
There has always been a peculiar fascination with crying being means to secrete out toxins from one's system - the chemical theory of crying. The article attributes its popularization to William Frey in 1985. But I was first confronted with it by a friend of mine, Mary Ganguli, who while visiting Detroit, all the way back in 1982, at a social get together, wondered aloud, as her infant son began to cry, if the functions of tears was not to get rid of some toxin in the body, and if only one could bottle  that toxin and find some antidote for it it would be the most unique and efficacious  antidepressant. In fact it was this comment of hers which set me to start thinking as to why we cry.
The chemical theory of crying is only partially correct. For while it is highly doubt that tears actually secrete inimical molecules (toxins) out of the body and thus lessen its load, for the volume of body fluid is so great and the quantity of tears so minuscule, the theory has psychological merit. Crying does not get rid of some biochemical poison out of our system but the psychological irritant whose presence is felt by the psyche as a toxin is lessened. It is catharsis of negative emotions not toxins.
The article devotes a substantial number of words on people who never and attributes them all kinds of properties. However, the explanation may be simpler than it seems. People who don't cry have learnt that others are more likely to take advantage of them if they appear helpless than help. Such people become more self-reliant, using their intellect uninfluenced by emotions, to guide them and are less connected feelingwise with others, seeing the world as more predatory than helpful. That is one reason why real men don't cry. Because if they cry in presence of other men they are quickly viewed as wimps who can easily be subjected to aggression and  dominated. The woman however has no such great conflict over getting aggressed upon, given her passive biological role, and may even use her vulnerability and tears to attract a man to her aid and for mating. At this point I am reminded of a man who took great pride in never crying, This man grew up with a father who was completely into raising his sons as ones who showed no weakness when subjected to aggression. In fact he forced his sons to pick up fights with kids much older than them so as to make them tough fearless fighting machines and when they would get beaten and cried would take a belt and beat them mercilessly for being cowards. And would whip them even harder if they cried when getting beaten by others. As a consequence, this man, Mr. James Trudeau, who came to see me for psychiatric problems when he was in his fifties, told me that his tears dried up when he was 7 or 8. For if he cried when older boys would beat him, he knew his father would beat him even more. And he claimed, he felt no pain whatsoever, and never cried either, whether he was getting beaten by other kids or by his father, no matter how severe was the beating. For tears meant more beating and more pain. Interestingly he came to see me for excruciating back pain, which no amount of surgeries by orthopedicians and neurosurgeons could cure. One day he abruptly left treatment sensing some weakness in the tone of my voice while I was on the phone making a business deal with a contractor where I was trying to cajole some concessions out of him thus acting more feminine, placating and manipulative than masculine. "You are a coward," he declared, "Who can teach me nothing, for there is nothing to be learnt from somebody who is not a true man. You were sucking up to him." And he walked out of my office, never to return. He brooked no trace of submissiveness in man. It should not surprise us that he was a total loner, and of a highly independent bent of mind.  He had dropped out of high school after physically assaulting his teacher who had challenged his manhood. It is interesting that I too can never cry. 
Now we come to the most difficult part of our essay.
The Time article gives a slight insight, as if in passing, into what the ancients thought was the purpose of crying. The ancients thought the tears originated from the heart. The Old Testament describes tears as the by-product of when the heart's material weakens and turns into water. And in this epigram may lie the crux of why we cry. Crying is an attempt to dissolve oneself into pieces and become part of the aquatic world from where all living organisms arose. The ultimate withdrawal is cessation of living. And crying is the most primitive step towards cessation of living. Its earliest  origin must have begun with the process of dessication so common in the lowest organisms. When environment becomes hostile, lower organisms like algae, fungi, nematodes shed all their fluid, curl up into a ball, and become as if part of the dust (inorganic world). They are for all practical purpose dead to the world just awaiting for more favorable circumstances to come and nurture them back to life.
All forms of catarrh, whether originating from the intestinal tract or respiratory tract or from the lachrymal glands are a form of desiccation. It is like under inclement weather or adverse circumstances lots of plants and small animals shed all their fluid, go into hibernation, and become practically dead, but with the purpose of once again imbibing water and blossoming when circumstances become hospitable, crying is an attempt, of the baby especially, but also of the grown ups, to withdraw from a hostile and inclement world into temporary non-existence.
Now we know the fantasy of being reborn is most frequently represented in dreams by drowning in water or being rescued out of water. It is like the recreation of intrauterine existence, a return to the womb in order to reemerge, be reborn more resplendent in better circumstances. Crying appears to be creation of a layer of water upon one's eyes and a mini-creation of intrauterine existence - a recreation of the return to womb fantasy.  So the baby cries with its first breath as if to say, "What did I do to deserve to come into this world which will be endless series of dealing with the inclement and cold environment, full of painful irritants, I rather go back to my mother's warm wet nurturing womb," recreating a piece of it through the tears.

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