Crying – that lump in your throat

By Michael Gakuran | | Other | 28 Comments |

Beautiful Life - Shuji OkishimaWhat causes that lump in your throat when you cry? Being ‘all choked up’? That tightening sensation that grips you when you are moved to feel strong emotions? This was the question that popped into my head this evening. It’s something I’ve come to expect as normal on those occasions when I feel lachrymose that it usually goes by without catching my attention, but today it finally snagged me the third time my heartstrings were tugged. The Japanese drama is called ‘Beautiful Life’ – one that I looked up after seeing it mentioned in a book about Japanese expressions that I was flicking through in the Union bookshop a couple of weeks ago. Should I really be confessing to watching Jdramas..? o.O;

Without getting into the old debate about men having the right to feel tearful, let’s just dwell on the science today. I went huntin’ for some answers and found similar things written on a few sites, so I’m fairly convinced what follows is a good explanation. Have a read for yourself. Apparently it’s all to do with the expanding and contracting battle of your glottis (the muscle which controls the opening at the back of your throat).

Put simply, when we feel a strong emotion, such as the urge to cry, it is translated as stress to the ‘autonomic nervous system’. Other emotions such as fear or anger are also translated in this way, as it’s thought that the causes of these emotions in our ancestors were only caused by stressful or dangerous situations. This is our typical ‘fight or flight’ biological reaction to things.

The stress triggers the autonomic nervous system which acts to increase the flow of oxygen and sugar to the muscles give us that much needed boost in dire situations. Consequently, in order to get more oxygen to the body, one biological response is to expand the glottis in your throat.

So, when one feels the urge to cry, it is translated into stress and dealt with accordingly by your autonomic nervous system. But, being the social creatures we are, there are times when we try to suppress the urge to cry and often constrict or stop breathing altogether. Hence we have a battle between the body’s natural response to stress by widening the muscle in the throat to get more oxygen, and one’s wish to avoid shedding tears where we often stop breathing and thus constrict the muscle in our throat.

There occurs a battle between these opposing forces to expand and contract the glottis at the same time, hence causing the ‘tightness’ we feel in our throat. The ‘lump’ in your throat is largely the same thing. When we try to swallow, we have to constrict our glottis, going against the biological response to expand the muscle and hence the sensation we have something stuck in our throat.

Now all we need to do is explore why we try to avoid crying… A social stigma? And really why are men not supposed to cry..?

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“One of the functions of the autonomic nervous system is to react to stress by changing how the body operates, to better deal with whatever is causing the stress. Emotions such as sorrow, fear, or anger are translated as stress to the autonomic nervous system, because the only causes of these emotions in our primitive mammalian ancestors were stressful situations. All mammals (and most other vertebrates) have developed a “Fight or Flight” response to danger, which gives the individual the speed to run, or the strength to fight, when attacked by another animal. To accomplish this, the stress of being attacked triggers the autonomic nervous system to increase the flow of oxygen and sugar to the muscles, so that they can be used more actively.

The increase in oxygen is accomplished at several levels: blood flow to the muscles is increased by making the heart beat harder and faster, and by decreasing blood flow to the internal organs; absorption of oxygen into the blood is increased by making the lungs breath faster; and air intake into the lungs is increased by opening the throat and mouth. The side effects of this are panting, heart pounding, and nausea. In the case of crying, which is the autonomic response to sorrow or grief, most of these effects are easily recognized.

An important part of opening the throat to allow the lungs to get more air involves expanding the glottis – the muscle which controls the opening from the back of the throat (pharynx) into the voice box (larynx) – so that more air can pass through it. So part of the autonomic response of crying is to use throat muscles to open the glottis as wide as possible. This doesn’t pose a problem until you want to swallow; swallowing involves closing the glottis, so that food doesn’t get into your larynx. So if you try to swallow while you are crying, the muscles for swallowing are fighting against the muscles for crying, and this tug-of-war over the glottis is perceived as a lump behind your larynx which makes it difficult to swallow.”

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Further information and sources:

MadSciNet

A Moment of Science

Amoena.com

**Update August 2011 – Corrected ‘automatic nervous system’ to read ‘autonomic nervous system’.**

28 comments on “Crying – that lump in your throat
  1. Fascinating and very well explained! Thanks.

  2. Kim says:

    I have that hard lump in the throat feeling even when I am full on crying; this seems to conflict with the explanation provided. It seems to correlate with the degree of grief/sorrow felt.

  3. PegC says:

    Just ran across this explanation when googling what exactly causes this. Good explanation! I get this from various things, from real life situations, soldier homecoming videos, rescued animals, and certain movies and books.

    As for why we resist crying – some of us are snotty or downright ugly criers. I, myself, will suffer from a runny nose and phlegm for an uncomfortable length of time if I cry at all. I think crying is good and cathartic, but for many of us it’s best done in private.

    Thanks for posting this.

  4. Sukanya says:

    Very well explained. I have been experiencing this kind of throat constriction and pain and was never able to understand it.Thanks!

  5. Sa Na says:

    Hi, is it possible to get more stientific details? In singing the cry or sob sound is used to maintain a low larynx and can be combined with other sound effects to get special sound effects (like Belting). I want to know which specific muscles get activated. As you wrote the muscle extending the glottis is activated – does this refer to the opener (M. cricoarytaenoideus posterior)or / and the lengenthener of the glottis (M. Cricothyroideus or simply “CT”)? Greetings!

  6. Sarah Waterhouse says:

    To be honest, ive had more than my fair share of crying, and i wouldnt say i cry for no reason. But i once asked some of my friends if they feel that pain in their thoat when they cry, but they all said no.. is there any reason for that or did they just not know what i was on about? haha

    Also, thanks for explaining it so well, ive always been curiouse as to why this happens, now i just have to try and remember! haha

  7. Fitzcan1 says:

    Thanks for this great explanation.  My son and I were just talking about this today and wondering why it happens — and why it’s so uncomfortable!  Seems like the discomfort comes from trying to suppress our body’s natural intelligence.  Imagine that!  :)

  8. Casaburgh says:

    very useful thank you for the research

  9. Meghna says:

    Hey..nicely explained ..and thanks! Like many other normal everyday phenomena that we take for granted or natural, this ‘lump in throat’ too caught my curiosity…and after all these years, I finally decided to google it up tonight! 

  10. Cyberphonic says:

    My theory: as children we cry in response to the mental distress associated with physical pain. Our parents teach us not to cry, in order to differentiate physical stress from emotional stress, and to act accordingly. Parents fall short in their own understanding and response to a boy who would cry because he skinned his knee. “It’s just a skinned knee. It’s nothing to cry about. You’re going to be okay, boy.” ends up being “Boys don’t cry” and it’s left at that. It’s a bit more complicated than all that but you get the gist.

  11. Rever Brisbois says:

    There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with men crying. I am soo tired of that social stigma crud!! My husband cries if he feels the need and I DO NOT think less of him because of it. He is strong or confident enough in himself to do what nature tells him to do. I myself have a struggle with that. I don't like to cry. It hurts my eyes when the tears come out and the lump in my throat is painful. I should practice what I preach huh? :) I am getting better at it, but also some medications seem to have an effect on that (like anti-depressants). I LOVE your explanation!! Thank you for making it so clear, especially when that is the last thing you feel at the moment.

  12. Kimi says:

    We live in a culture that disdains the feminine. That's why the so-called “women's liberation” movement aimed at allowing women to prove we were “as good as” men, as if that were a step up. Men and women will truly have liberation when men wish to be as good as women. Then we will be able to learn the best that everyone has to offer.

    In the mean time, men can't cry because that would mean lowering themselves to the despicable state of being like women.

    • Jesse Ocho says:

      Actually it because its been passed down from generation, from father to son so on so on. That men aren’t suppose to cry. Fathers install that in there sons “cry doesn’t fix anything.” “What you can’t handle it!” Men don’t cry in front of others especially in front of other men because that man may never see that man he saw crying the same way. There for losing respect for that man. So much is believe for a woman to see him crying. When a man cries and others see, its like a display of weakness. Our dignity is on the line. Yes there is certain situation that it is okay to do so like the lost of a loved one other than that we as men are suppose to take it. Men can cry in front of there wives because that is the only person we trust and we can feel safe opening up to. Now if his wife make fun of him or tell others about it, chances are you’ll never see that again cause you just embarrassed and betrayed the trust he once had with you. I don’t know if this will help shed some light on the topic? But that is my understanding as a man, it has nothing to do with lower our self to a women level as you put it. Funny though cause it sounds like some battle of the sexes crap. lol

      • brian says:

        from father to son, the gist of the training goes like this…”save your tears for the BIG stuff….otherwise realize that A. the pain (if physical) is short lived, no big deal, walk it off….or B. Get up and find a solution, “solve” your problem, overcome…..feel THAT instead of wallowing in unproductive tears….
        Tears have their place in a man’s life…but “problem solving” occupies a bigger place…

        • Genha says:

          Thank you brian. This is the correct explanation. Many women mistakenly make intelligible men sound like having either suppressed feelings or a tendency towards chauvinism. I’m looking at you Kimi and Rever Brisbois.

          It’s actually quite simple:
           – If you have absolutely no idea how to handle your emotions and need to ventilate, then cry.
           – If you are able to control yourself or filter your emotions, calm down and assess the situation, then respond with intellect and apply your solution.

          This should really be known as “the golden rule” of mankind. Reason. Logic.
          On a side note, some call this process “growing up”.

  13. Scarlo-hara says:

    Explained very well thank you, but the thing is, your throat hurts even if your not trying to supress yourself, so perhaps there’s something else to it?

    As for your own questions, were I come from crying is always condoned, so I think it’s more personal than social. Same goes for both genders.

    And/Or perhaps supression is also in-built which would explain the same feeling even when you’re not making concious effort, this would also be as a survival mechanism, to hide a feeling of vulnerability towards attackers, this also means there would be instinct providing an urge to supress,oooh I’m good!

    This doesn’t explain however, why you feel the same when your crying with joy.

  14. Scarlo-hara says:

    Explained very well thank you, but the thing is, your throat hurts even if your not trying to supress yourself, so perhaps there’s something else to it?

    As for your own questions, were I come from crying is always condoned, so I think it’s more personal than social. Same goes for both genders.

    And/Or perhaps supression is also in-built which would explain the same feeling even when you’re not making concious effort, this would also be as a survival mechanism, to hide a feeling of vulnerability towards attackers, this also means there would be instinct providing an urge to supress,oooh I’m good!

    This doesn’t explain however, why you feel the same when your crying with joy.

  15. Yvonne Goble says:

    I’d like to speak to you Mike. I’m very interested. By email.

  16. Yvonne Goble says:

    I’d like to speak to you Mike. I’m very interested. By email.

  17. Yvonne Goble says:

    That article about crying was absolutely excellent and it explained so well about the crying urge getting translated as a signal of stress.

  18. Yvonne Goble says:

    That article about crying was absolutely excellent and it explained so well about the crying urge getting translated as a signal of stress.

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