Let’s just get this out of the way. I’ve cried at a lot of parties and, for the most part until recently, I’ve never properly understood why. I had no clue that the origins of my distress is down to a complex biological process involving stimuli, neurotransmitters, and something called the lacrimal system. But before we get into the science of crying, allow me to take you back in time…
When I was 13 I experienced what it was to have a full social life for the first time. My first year of high school introduced me to a large group of people and to my delight some of them actually liked me. I formed friendships quickly and easily (unusual for me, being an introvert) and as a result, that first year of high school was filled with social activities. There were slumber parties, pool parties, junk-food parties, and walking-around-town-aimlessly parties.
There was just one problem. At nearly every party I found myself sneaking off and crying in a quiet corner. I had no idea why. At no point did I think ‘Oh wow, I’m feeling overstimulated. I need to go somewhere and decompress before I burst into tears.’ I did wonder if I was doing it for attention but that didn’t seem right to me because I hated it and felt embarrassed if I was discovered. There was no social benefit to me if I cried at a party. In fact, the second year of high school saw fewer invitations coming my way which at the time didn’t feel great.
I was well into my adult years and working before I consciously made the connection between increases in my stress levels and crying. It became blindingly obvious that crying is my default response to stress, as it is to many people. Overworked? I’d cry. Changes to physical and social working environments? I’d cry. One colleague commented that he thought I cried at work in order to get my way. He believed I was using my tears to manipulate others into giving me what I wanted. I mean sure, it’d be great to not be doing two people’s jobs at the same time. And yep, I’d prefer not to have the fact that I work efficiently be taken advantage of by those who don’t. On occasion crying at work did result in a roll-back of responsibilities and workload but honestly, who wants to be known as the person at work who cries? There is zero professional benefit.
Most of us understand stressors in the workplace. So what’s so stressful about a party? If you’re an introvert you’re more likely to be sensitive to noise (loud music) and the din of multiple conversations happening at once. You’re also more likely to be aware of your personal space, or rather the lack of it in a crowd, so much so that being constantly jostled and bumped can raise stress levels. When an introverts automatic nervous system is hit with excessive stimuli, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine signals to our lacrimal or ‘tear’ system to do its thing. (Source: Why Do We Cry? The Science of Tears, 2014).
Understanding how the part of the brain called the amygdala works, particularly in introverts, has also opened my eyes. In her must-read book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain discusses the role the amygdala plays in our response to stress and perceived threats (also know as the fight or flight response). The amygdala reacts to external stimuli and sends signals to our nervous system to respond physically to any perceived danger. Adrenalin and the stress hormone cortisol elevate the urgency of the situation.
Over the course of his extensive research Professor of Psychology Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., found that introverts are more likely to have overactive amygdalas. This means that when faced with noisy, crowded environments, introverts are more likely to experience discomfort and stress. Therefore, introverts will prefer to remove themselves from the environment that is causing that stress.
Managing stress and your response to it is an invaluable skill and I clearly haven’t been great at either. To be honest I’m still not, I still have a way to go.
Perhaps I prefer to use crying as my ‘natural’ barometer. It reminds me to step back when I’ve taken too much on. It also is a great way to relieve stress, like a release valve of some kind. Sure, I could jog or take up cage-fighting but frankly, exercise stresses me out.
These days, I see no point in putting myself in social/work situations where I know I will experience an amount of stress that will lead to a highly emotional response. On the other hand, I also recognise that life will be stressful at times because of events and circumstances outside of my control, and I’m fine with that.
I’ll just keep the tissues handy.