Why Do We Get That Lump in Our Throat When We're Sad or Anxious?

My family is a big fan of the show America’s Got Talent, especially my 10-year-old son. The other evening as we were catching up on episodes, during a very emotional singing performance by one of the contestants, he turned to me and said, “Mom, why do we get a lump in our throat when we feel like we want to cry?”

His question made me get a lump in my throat (of course!  but it also made me wonder: What is this thing we always feel bubble up in our throat? Do we get it because we are trying to fight against our emotions? Is it all in our heads or is it physical?

I’ve not only felt it when I am about to cry, but I’ve been known to try and swallow down that annoying lump when I’m nervous or anxious. It is especially hard to deal with when speaking in front of crowds. It just seems to stick there and can make speaking very difficult — you can’t cough it up or clear your throat, and it makes swallowing extremely hard.

Dr. Jennifer Stagg, a biochemist-turned-naturopathic physician who authored the book Unzip Your Genes: 5 Choices to Reveal a Radically Radiant You, says it isn’t actually a lump at all. “In medical terminology, it is referred to as ‘globus sensation.’”

So really, we just have a feeling there is something (it usually feels like phlegm) lodged in our gullet, but there is nothing there at all.

The causes for this globus sensation don’t just sneak up on us during emotionally stressful times. According to Stagg, in some of these cases, the condition may be linked to inflammation, reflux and problems with the esophagus, epiglottis or thyroid. So be aware if this is happening to you on the regular and you don’t think your emotions are a contributing factor, it’s best to consult a doctor to get to the bottom of what may be a bigger problem.

Unfortunately, Stagg says there really is no treatment for the emotional throat lump. It’s part of being an emotional being. She did mention that people who suffer from anxiety and stressful events in their life “are more likely to be affected by chronic globus sensation, and there is no known way to prevent it.”

Stagg adds that some ENTs (ears, nose and throat doctors) believe the sense of a lump in the throat “is the result of an altered sensory pathway (similar to ringing in the ears), which would make more sense, knowing the link to emotional status and mood disorders.”

But, like what can you do about it?

The fact that it makes swallowing more difficult is not in our heads, though. Stagg adds if you do have that feeling in your throat, you are better off trying to have a few sips of water or trying to eat something, since it’s easier to swallow with something going down our esophagus than it is to dry swallow.

It looks like it may be something we are stuck with (no pun intended), but keeping water or food nearby when we feel it coming on is a small thing we can do the ease the sensation, because unfortunately, we can’t avoid stressful or emotionally charged situations all the time. But at least now you know it’s not just your imagination.

A version of this story was published November 2017.

But sometimes you do need a good cry. Here’s a few of our favorite tear-jerking movies to help you let it all out: 

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