Healthy Mind

Okay, But What’s Really Happening to Your Body When You’re Stressed or About To Cry and You Get a Lump in Your Throat?

Photo: Getty Images/ bymuratdeniz

You're all cozied up watching the series finale of your favorite TV show. You feel your eyes swell with tears, and you notice the urge to cry is accompanied by a lump-in-your-throat feeling. Whether it's when crying happy or sad tears—or when you've been feeling particularly stressed and anxious—chances are you've experienced this sensation at some point. The good news? The feeling is a natural response to stress or sadness and nothing to be alarmed about. The bad news? While not painful, the sensation can be quite bothersome. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to get rid of the lump in your throat. But first, a doctor explains what's really going on in your body physically when this happens.

Why do you feel a lump in your throat when you're stressed or feel like crying

Exactly why we get a lump in our throats is unclear, according to holistic, plant-based physician Melissa Mondala, MD. Scientific research is still evolving as the causes are complex, and more research is needed, but Dr. Mondala says that abnormalities of the upper esophageal sphincter (aka the muscles located at the top of the esophagus), mood disorders, and reflux have all been implicated thus far.  

What we do know, Dr. Mondala explains, is that the human anatomy shows our throats are lined with nerves, muscles, and arteries, which can be hyperstimulated when we experience strong emotions like stress or sadness. Specifically, the sensation manifests when we try to swallow, which involves closing the vocal cords (aka glottis). However, stress and the need to cry cause the vocal cords to remain open, so the lump-in-throat feeling is created as the throat's muscles try to close while the vocal cords remain open. 

In other words, although it may feel like there's something stuck in your throat, there isn't. The medical term for this is globus, and the sensation can be persistent or intermittent but is typically not painful. 

That's the medical perspective. From a spiritual and energetic point of view, Codi Jane Baker, a reiki master, sound healer, breathwork facilitator, and certified yoga teacher, says the lump-in-your-throat feeling can be a sign of unprocessed or suppressed emotions wanting to be expressed. This is related to the throat chakra, which deals with processing and expressing emotions, which is located—you guessed it—in your neck. 

"When stagnant energy goes unprocessed, it can become dense and then be experienced as physical sensations in the body like a lump in the throat," Baker explains. This sensation, she adds, is essentially your body's way of telling you something needs to be felt, processed, released energetically, or expressed verbally. 

So if you feel a lump in your throat when you're stressed or about to cry, know it's a normal reaction. Dr. Mondala says the sensation can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few days. If it persists long after the stressful event (as in more than three to six months), however, Dr. Mondala says it can be concerning, especially if the lump sensation is accompanied by pain when swallowing foods or liquids. In this case, book an appointment with a doctor for a physical exam. An appointment with a specialist may also be needed to ensure there are no structural abnormalities or allergic reactions.  

How to get rid of the lump-in-throat sensation

There are a few things you can do to get rid of the feeling. First, Dr. Mondala says keeping your throat hydrated by drinking room-temperature water can help minimize the sensation. Also, she advises avoiding acidic foods and drinks (e.g., spicy foods, caffeine, chocolate, carbonated beverages) that can cause reflux as it is thought to be a cause of globus. 

Most importantly, though, focus on doing things that will help reduce stress, such as deep breathing. "Take time to take slow, deep breaths to activate the vagus nerve," Dr. Mondala says. "The vagus nerve is important for the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows the body to be calm and relaxed, and to minimize the feeling of doom." To help clear the stuck energy, Baker also suggests focusing on where you feel the trapped emotion and energy (in this case, the throat) as you practice deep breathing and visualize that energy leaving your body as you exhale. 

Dr. Mondala adds that other things that can help regulate the nervous system include listening to soothing sounds, guided meditation, outdoor walks, and practicing gratitude. Receiving a reiki session where a practitioner channels chi (aka life force energy) to help clear the blocked or stagnant energy can also help. "Sometimes what you may need or what would be the most supportive is a container where you feel safe to release, and a reiki session can do just that," Baker says. 

Writing down your thoughts and feelings is another emotion-releasing ritual worth trying. "Journaling is another effective way to process emotions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that help reduce the sense of sadness and even anxiety, depression, or grief," Dr. Mondala says. 

And lastly, if you feel the urge to cry, by all means, let it out. "If you are feeling emotions bubbling to the surface, you can lean into your body's natural process of releasing stuck emotion and energy by lovingly allowing your tears to clear the energy for you," Baker says. This is a healthy thing to do, Dr. Mondala says, adding that it can also be beneficial to work with a mental health professional who can guide you through releasing the emotions of sadness to prevent or remedy any negative physical manifestations. 

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