Published:  2007-05

Can the distress-signal and arousal-reduction views of crying be reconciled? Evidence from the cardiovascular system

Authors:  Michelle C. P. Hendriks, Jonathan Rottenberg, Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets

Tags:  Adaptation, Psychological, Adolescent, Adult, Arousal, Crying, Electrocardiography, Emotions, Female, Heart Rate, Homeostasis, Humans, Motion Pictures

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Theorists have staked out two ostensibly opposing views of human crying as either an arousing behavior that signals distress or a soothing behavior that reduces arousal after distress. The present study examined whether these views of crying might be reconciled by attending to physiological changes that unfold over crying episodes. Sixty female students watched neutral and cry-eliciting films while autonomic physiology, including respiratory sinus arrhythmia and pre-ejection period, was assessed. Crying participants exhibited heart rate increases that rapidly subsided after crying onset. Crying onset was also associated with increases in respiratory sinus arrhythmia and slowed breathing. All crying effects subsided by 4 minutes after onset. It is possible that crying is both an arousing distress signal and a means to restore psychological and physiological balance, depending on how and when this complex behavior is interrogated.