The feeling of having a lump in your throat is something that many of us identify with at times of great stress or emotion. From professional situations to personal difficulties, there are many reasons why you might find yourself overcome with difficult feelings and the need to cry. It’s usually at that point that you might get the feeling that there is a lump in your throat, especially if you’re trying to hold back the tears. Although there is no physical lump in the throat it can feel incredibly real so what can cause this strange sensation?
It’s all about your nervous system
Usually, when we feel a lump in the throat during times of great emotion or stress this actually has nothing to do with a physical symptom. There are some situations in which you may have an actual lump in your throat but the feeling of a lump in your throat that comes during a very emotional time is caused by something else entirely. When you experience this sensation it’s actually your autonomic nervous system starting to kick in.
What is the autonomic nervous system?
This is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for our bodily functions that we don’t have control over, such as blood being pumped around the body or the digestion of food. It also has a key role to play when we are in a stressful situation and going through different emotional states. The autonomic nervous system is particularly important in situations of high emotion where the body is picking up on the need for “fight or flight.” This could be any stressful situation, whether that is someone else’s physical or verbal attack or feelings of grief or fear. The autonomic nervous system doesn’t distinguish between these different emotional states, only that an emotional state is happening and so there is a need to respond. That response is a flood of oxygen and blood through the body to activate muscles and give us a chance to fight back or escape.
Why does this cause a lump in the throat?
In order to support this fight or flight response the autonomic nervous system needs the body to breathe in more oxygen. This means that we will start to breathe faster in order to get that air into the system and the glottis - which is the part of the throat that air flows down from the larynx to the lungs - gets much wider. If our bodies were in an actual fight or flight situation we wouldn’t notice this - the increase in air would simply give our bodies the power to move one way or another. However, when this is happening in response to an emotional situation it can feel very unsettling. The problem comes when we try to swallow - the action of swallowing usually involves closing the glottis, which is wide open at this point, both due to the stress response and how the body cries. The lump in the throat feeling is created by the muscles of the throat trying to close while the glottis is wide open.
A lump in the throat is a very standard response in an emotional situation for these simple reasons.