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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tricks Of Tears

I cry when I’m happy, I cry when I’m sad, I may cry when I’m sharing something that’s of great significance to me,” said Nancy Reiley, 62, who works at a women’s shelter in Tampa, Fla., “and for some reason I sometimes will cry when I’m in a public speaking situation.

“It has nothing to do with feeling sad or vulnerable. There’s no reason I can think of why it happens, but it does.”

Now, some researchers say that the common psychological wisdom about crying — crying as a healthy catharsis — is incomplete and misleading. Having a “good cry” can and usually does allow people to recover some mental balance after a loss. But not always and not for everyone, argues a review article in the current issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. Placing such high expectation on a tearful breakdown most likely sets some people up for emotional confusion afterward.

This call for a more nuanced view of crying stems partly from a critique of previous studies. Over the years, psychologists have confirmed many common observations about crying. It is infectious. Women break down more easily and more often than men, for reasons that are very likely biochemical as well as cultural. And the physical experience mirrors the psychological one: heart rate and breathing peak during the storm and taper off as the sky clears.

When asked about tearful episodes, most people, as expected, insist that the crying allowed them to absorb a blow, to feel better and even to think more clearly about something or someone they had lost.

At least that’s the way they remember it — and that’s the rub, said Jonathan Rottenberg, a psychologist at the University of South Florida and a co-author of the review paper. “A lot of the data supporting the conventional wisdom is based on people thinking back over time,” he said, “and it’s contaminated by people’s beliefs about what crying should do.”

Just as researchers have found that people tend, with time, to selectively remember the best parts of their vacations (the swim-up bars and dancing) and forget the headaches, so crying may also appear cathartic in retrospect. Memory tidies up the mixed episodes — the times when tears brought more shame than relief, more misery than company.

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Posted by Ajay :: 3:40 PM :: 2 comments

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