Knowing how our nervous systems work can help guide what we do - and don't do - when people burst into tears.
At the site of the 2010 Chilean mine disaster, the son of miner
Florencio Avalos burst into tears when his father was brought safely to
the surface. Later that month, Caylee Anthony's grandmother was shown
weeping over her granddaughter's death. How can two such totally
different events - one joyful, one tragic - both elicit tears?
This question puzzles many clinicians, including some who are considered
experts in the field of emotional expression. The problem is that few
of us have received explicit training in theories of emotion. Therefore,
our notions about tears and other forms of emotional release are still
partly based on "steam-kettle thinking" - the culturally pervasive but
biologically absurd notion that emotions are stored quantities of
energy, which, like steam, wreak havoc when bottled up too long or
released too abruptly. Our everyday language is rife with steam-kettle
metaphors. We talk about "blowing off steam," being "flooded with
emotion," "boiling over" with rage, and "feeling drained" after a good
cry. The Freudian theory of catharsis is basically a steam-kettle model,
and so are various expressive therapies, such as psychodrama, primal
scream, reevaluation counseling, and Gestalt therapy. Similarly,
remnants of steam-kettle theory can be found in current approaches
toward regulation, stress reduction, and anger management.
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