Lolostock/ShutterstockMaybe it’s stress. Maybe it’s a tearjerker flick you hate to love, or someone forced you to watch the saddest movie clip of all time. Regardless of the cause, we’re all familiar with the lump we get in the back of our throats when we’re overcome with emotion. Usually it happens when we’re sad, but any overwhelming feeling can produce the same effect.
So what causes this sensation? I’m no scientist, but I’m fairly certain emotions cannot spontaneously cause a lump of tissue to grow in your esophagus then shrink as the feelings pass.
And that’s true, according to science. The lump you feel isn’t actually a lump, but the feeling of opposing muscles in your throat—specifically the glottis, or the opening between your vocal chords—working against each other. It’s known as the globus sensation.
To understand how this works, let’s talk about the nervous system. The part of the nervous system that deals with stress is the autonomic nervous system, which controls the fight or flight response. During a stressful situation, it calls for an increased flow of oxygen to the muscles that need it. In order to do that, we start to breathe faster and the glottis expands to let all the air in. But tense situations also make us swallow or hold our breath to force back our sobs. The problem is, those actions require closing the glottis and cause other muscles to constrict. Since different muscles are trying to open or close the glottis at the same time, the result is the sensation that you swallowed a golf ball.
In addition to putting a “lump” in your throat, crying strengthens your body and your mind. Plus it just makes you feel better, so don’t feel embarrassed about shedding a few tears.