Crying – that lump in your throat

By Michael Gakuran | | Other | 23 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..?


“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.”


Further information and sources:


A Moment of Science

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

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