You can’t swallow your sorrow.
The cinematic masterpiece “My Girl” ruined my childhood. When Vada tearfully exclaims, “Where are his glasses? He can’t see without his glasses,” during Thomas J’s funeral, I lost it. Even when I watch it today, I can feel that annoying lump in my throat thicken as I tear up, readying myself for the emotional turbulence I’m about to endure.
Well, turns out a “lump in the throat” is just a sensation. It’s us feeling an obstruction or a lump that doesn’t really exist. The “lump” comes from the glottis, an opening in the larynx between the vocal cords where air travels through to the lungs. We don’t feel when the glottis opens and closes as we swallow regularly or eat, but that changes when we cry or feel weepy.
In those situations, the central nervous system spreads oxygen throughout the body to help it react properly. To get more air, the body signals for the glottis to stay open as long as possible. When we’re one second away from a sob fest and trying to swallow, we force the glottis closed. This counteracts the mission for more air, which confuses the throat muscles and creates tension that feels like a lump.
This sensation also occurs when we make the leap from being on the verge of tears to a snotty, sobbing mess. When the breath turns heavy from crying, the body directs the glottis to open up for heightened oxygen intake. As you swallow to try to rise above the current of snot and tears, it once again feels like a lump is clogging your throat. Thankfully, the sensation passes once you relax. Then the glottis returns to its normal routine and waits for your next emotional breakdown.
While none of this information will help you hold back tears next time you’re in the midst of a breakup or watching one of those soldiers-come-home-to-their-babies compilations, at least you now know what your body is going through. And that’s somewhat comforting, right?