Have you ever experienced this? Shaking uncontrollably while you're crying? You're not the only one. My therapy clients often bring this up. I'm going to address what's happening when we cry typically, then address what is happening when we cry uncontrollably.
People report different types of experiences when they cry. There is no one way to cry that's best for all of us. My therapy clients tell me they go into uncontrollable shakes, some have said they isolate in a bathroom and some report going into a destructive rage. Crying is different for all of us and completely normal and even a possibly necessary part of climbing the Polyvagal ladder. But why the shaking?
Why we cry
Crying is potentially and commonly an aspect of emotional releasing. Like when we grieve, or when we’re letting go of some deep sadness. Crying often comes with it. To understand why, it’s important to understand what the Polyvagal ladder is and the function of crying.
The Polyvagal ladder is a metaphor for the mammalian autonomic nervous system. There are three autonomic pathways in the ANS, including the ventral vagal social engagement system, the sympathetic flight/fight system and the dorsal vagal immobilization system. The safety system at the top of the ladder, flight/fight in the middle and shutdown at the bottom.
These three states have unique physiological, emotional, cognitive and behavioral aspects to them. For example, when in the social engagement system, mammals impulsively connect with each other. There may be an experience of calm or happiness or belonging. Muscles relax while facial muscles show smiles, listening, surprise and more. In a flight/fight state, there is a tensing in preparation to mobilize the body to get to safety. In shutdown, there is an emptiness as the body slows down to conserve resources in a possible death feign.
Two of these pathways can be active at the same time, something called a mixed state. You can learn a lot more about mixed states and the other fundamental Polyvagal Theory information in my Polyvagal 101 course. It’s essential learning for those in the helping professions and also for those who are doing their own recovery, where through a professional or not. For now, let’s focus on the mixed state of freeze.
Freeze is a combination of shutdown and mobilization. The body is immobilizing while also in a flight/fight activation. Think about the last time you were in a dentist’s chair. You may have had tense muscles, but were immobilized while a drill or pick was in your mouth. Your muscles are prepared to run or fight, but your body is also stuck in place in immobilization. That’s a minor example of a mixed state. Of course, you can ultimately choose to get up and walk away. And there is an end. And you’re not actually in significant danger. Once the procedure is done, you get up, make small talk, exchange smiles and walk out into the sunlight outside. You’re not traumatized and the activation you felt in your muscles eases.
Now imagine that the tension in the muscles doesn’t ease and gets “frozen” into your body. That tension - the flight/fight activation - stays within the body. It’s frozen at a certain moment in time and can be triggered by aspects of the event. Like, if you saw the dentist outside of the office, that flight/fight activation could resurface. Or if you heard one of the songs that was playing in the background during the procedure, then it could be activating as well. These are called “triggers,” something that is very common in trauma.
Eventually, that activation from the dentist’s chair needs to discharge.
Why we shake when we cry
If we were wild animals, we would simply shake it off. Seriously. That’s it. Wild animals are excellent at listening to the needs of their bodies. If their body has a freeze experience, they shake it off. They shake and tremble, releasing the stuck state and returning to a self-regulated state. Here’s an example that Peter Levine uses -
Of course, humans are animals still. We still retain the capacity to shake off stuck traumatic energy. Humans make things a lot more complex in the process, like shaming and guilting ourselves. And the traumatic events we endure are much more complex than the survive-or-die variety that wild animals endure. Our traumatic events tend to often include things like rejection, shame, humiliation, deception and more. Things that animals don’t do to each other. There’s layers to our traumas, oftentimes generational.
So simply shaking it off is not really a practical avenue for us. At least, not all at once. This is compounded by the fact that we also keep ourselves stuck in traumatized states. We tell ourselves reinforcing stories, like “I shouldn’t have been there” or “I deserved it.” This type of shaking and trembling is best for stuck shock trauma that comes from a freeze state. I haven’t found it all that useful for returning sympathetic energy, like for someone who is coming out of a stuck shutdown state. Instead of shaking it off, that person needs to welcome it.
Regardless of all this, human beings do nevertheless shake off their frozen energy. It’s called crying. At least, it could look like crying. We can definitely do the polar bear type of shaking like in the video, but we typically don't. (I consider that more of a "pure" or first level form of trauma releasing.) Like I said at the outset, crying is “an aspect of emotional releasing.” But it’s not just emotionally releasing something, there is an autonomic shift happening. Stuck freeze energy is discharging.
Think about it - when humans cry, we go through physiological shifts, just like the polar bear in the above video. Breathing spontaneously changes, from heavier to lighter. There is a tensing of our muscles and often full-body heaves. We tighten and constrict. Fluid discharges from our eyes. Our awareness goes from highly constricted and narrow to fuller. And we may even have an impulse to connect with another during or after a cry. Really, we shake and tremble. It’s a full-body releasing of stuck frozen energy.
If done successfully.
If you can successfully cry, then it eventually stops. Eventually, there is an ease in breathing and a return to being grounded in the present moment. I often see my therapy clients do some crying and then shift into laughter as their autonomic nervous system climbs into a state of safety and social engagement. For the person grieving in sadness, it turns into appreciation and a pleasant memory comes to their mind. Crying is a normal and maybe even necessary part of this autonomic shift.