Chapter 4: Why Your Throat Hurts When You Cry (2024)

When a threat is realised and you cannot use higher-order strategies to negotiate it, the parasympathetic nervous system is supplanted by its other half, the sympathetic nervous system. This is the system responsible for triggering the mobilization response. Its job is to prime your body for movement.

It is also the reason behind the “frog in the throat”, a painful tightness within the throat that typically accompanies crying or situations that are emotionally vexing, otherwise known as theGlobus Sensation. If the feeling that brings on tears is particularly intense it can be a scary and overwhelming experience; and if so, when you begin crying, thefearof the emotion itself engages and innervates the sympathetic nervous system to assist you with either fighting the emotion or to avoid it. The tiger is adept at infiltrating our inner world too.

When in fight or flight, specifically triggered by fear,your throat (vocal tract) and vocal folds (the muscles that vibrate to create sound) expand and widen to allow more oxygen to fill your lungs to fuel a sudden escape or break into a fight. However, swallowing andtalking requires the larynx, or rather, the specialised cartilages within, tobring the vocal folds back together, which runs into conflict with other muscles trying to keep them apart! The increased effort to expand the throat and the tension created by opposing contractions, when talking or swallowing, triggers pain and discomfort in the throat.

Secondly, if you really don’t want to let out what you're feeling, holding your breath keeps the emotion at bay, which is why crying tends to be sputtered with gasping for air as if resurfacing from the deep of the ocean. But when we hold our breath to prevent feeling too much this paradoxically closes the vocal folds and narrows the vocal tract. It is also an interesting quirk that the release of emotion is stifled by the retention of breath; a key insight into the domain of tension, an entity that we’ll revisit regularly throughout the remainder of the book.

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So, when dealing with intense feelings, the body will prepare to take in more oxygen by opening the vocal folds (to deal with the threat: in this case, the fear of the emotion) and simultaneously we tend to stem the flow of feeling by closing the vocal folds (limiting the amount of oxygen to be exhaled) creating oppositional force or tension. This is not to say that stemming the outflow of emotion is universal, some people let open the floodgates with ease, but for the most part, expressing ourselves is a difficult feat. If we take a child’s tantrum as an example, they can last hours, screaming at the top of their lungs, and will have tears streaming down their face like a river. At this point, the body and mind of a child is pure rage, wrath, and destruction. There is a great difference between “I am angry” and “I am anger”, and the child is completely the latter. However, the Globus Sensation is not experienced by a child screaming, otherwise, the tantrum would last only a few minutes before the pain would become unbearable. These are all novel emotions too, feelings the child may never have felt before, so, why might the fear of the unknown not have the same effects compared to their more mature counterparts?

To begin to answer this, in some sense, we are all trained in one way or another to eventually master these emotions, so that we can effectively convey in words to another “I am angry” rather than the body expressing “I am anger”, which if unleashed through the body of an adult would have devastating effects to a society. Although, losing the ability to live so in the moment, is for the most part, something we also yearn to rediscover. However, to have any semblance of order, tantrums must become a thing of the past as a child matures; and indeed, for a child to assimilate and forge relationships, higher-order functions such as sharing must take the place where tantrums once dominated. Whilst areas within the brain responsible for impulse control and inhibition develop and put an end to any further tantrums, some cultures have correcting features on “acceptable” displays of emotion within a society. In cultures, both west and east, it is common to hear statements such as “men don’t cry”, and whilst I am not writing to argue the validity of its existence, expectations such as these become embalmed on our psyche in our efforts to assimilate within a society. In our attempts to stifle feelings that may breach this expectation, the sudden vulnerability only exacerbates the feeling that our emotions may ostracise us, something a child has yet to fully appreciate. If the acceptance of tears across the spectrum become more commonplace, and we encouraged the communication of one's felt experience without the possibility of rejection or ridicule, the Globus Sensation may become a thing of the past.

We are still left with the problem of the emotion itself and its overwhelming capacity that triggers the mobilisation response. The distinction lies in the embodiment of the emotion: The child’s self is rage, whereas the adult, now equipped with impulse control and inhibition, has a portion of their self that observes rage at a distance, like a referee ready to step in should the fight between control and impulse get out of hand. A split between the observed and the observer. Where the child can fully complete the cycle of the emotion, letting it pass through by screaming, kicking, and rolling; the watcher, by definition, is constantly conscious of the rising tide of immense feeling. The difference in awareness, both of what is experienced internally and its effects externally, mark the distinction between how we respond to feelings later in adulthood.

But the watcher can become a tyrant too, unwilling to let vent any extreme emotion either due to a societal expectation, an expectation one puts on oneself, or the feeling that what you might have to say deserves no right to be heard.

To illustrate what I mean, at my father’s funeral, I was asked to give a “spare of the moment” eulogy which I was unprepared for.[1] The Globus Sensation was so painful, relative to the grief I was feeling, that I couldn’t physically make a sound. I tried and tried, but nothing came out of my mouth, except intermittent gasps of air. To this day, not being able to speak at my father’s funeral is a sore spot… if only I knew what I know now. The reason why my feeling was particularly intense, is because I had left a lot of things unsaid, a result of a tyrannical watcher stifling my feelings to the deepest abyss until they came erupting out in a blaze of agony, as all things eventually do.

Unfortunately, there is no easy path or panacea to the Globus Sensation, and like Dante and Virgil, you must descend to the depths of the feeling that is creating such a physiological response of fear and understand its roots. It is facing the dragon within that helps the body move from experiencing emotions with fear to moving to a point where you become the emotion by accepting it and letting it pass without the need to destroy everything around you. It is a process of integration. The more you accustom yourself to these feelings, the less fear you have about the unknown, as you begin to realize that you can come through intact on the other side. That you will survive.

An example of getting accustomed to the depths of one’s feelings is shown by how actors continue to vocalize even though they are experiencing a high emotional state. The fear has subsided as they are habituated to their bodily response and it no longer shuts down the parasympathetic nervous system which acts as the brake on the fight or flight response, which means no more frog in the throat. And whilst rehearsal has some part to play in this habituation, actors are required to “know their sh*t”, meaning that deep introspection required for the craft forces them to confront the darker parts of their humanity. If you suffer from this sensation regularly, it would be worth getting underneath its physiology, as the same dragon that wreaks havoc when you cry will undoubtedly also shape the way your voice is heard and used in other contexts.

The Globus Sensation is simply a result of the body’s response to stress from fear, and fight or flight has one thing in mind: survive.

[1] My unpreparedness arose from the fact that I did not know we were at his funeral! This comic absurdity came about as my sibling and I traveled from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur and were dropped off in the midst of the funeral in-progress. I assumed the date would’ve been sometime later in the future and would’ve given me time to prepare, I assumed wrong but even had I written words on paper I doubt it would’ve helped.

Chapter 4: Why Your Throat Hurts When You Cry (2024)

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