Why Your Throat Hurts When You Cry
Updated: Feb 7
The body's autonomic nervous response to stress.
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The pain experienced in times of anguish has its roots in evolutionary biology. 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, the fear of the emotion itself engages and innervates
the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the body’s Fight or Flight response.
When in fight or flight, 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 and talking pull the vocal folds back together and run into conflict with the 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 trigger pain and discomfort in the throat.
Furthermore, if you really don’t want to let out what your feeling, holding your breath keeps the emotion at bay; which is why crying tends to be sputtered with a lot of gasping for air. But when we hold our breath to prevent feeling too much this paradoxically closes the vocal folds and narrows the vocal tract.
Therefore, when dealing with intense feeling, the body is preparing to take in more oxygen, by opening the vocal folds, to deal with the threat (the fear of the emotion) and simultaneously working to stem the flow of feeling by closing the vocal folds (limiting the amount of oxygen to plug the feeling).
My own experience with the Globus Sensation
To illustrate that you're not alone, I was asked to say a few words at my father's funeral. The sensation in my throat was so painful, I couldn’t bring my vocal folds together to make a sound. To this day, not being able to speak at my father's funeral troubles me greatly but it goes to show that the depth of the feeling is what you must come to get to grips with in order to allow the pain to pass. The reason why my feeling was particularly intense, is because I had left a lot of things unsaid. Something I don't recommend.
How to get through without feeling like your choking
Unfortunately, there is no easy path or panacea, and like Dante and Virgil, you will have to descend to the depths of the feeling that is creating such a physiological response of fear and foreboding and make an effort to understand its roots. The more you accustom yourself to these feelings, the less fear you have about the unknown, as you begin to realise that you can come through intact on the other side. It does demand, however, that you summon the courage to face the dragon within, that may have been lying dormant for many years only to rear its head at the onslaught of the situation.
Getting accustomed to the depths of one’s feelings is how actors continue to vocalise when in a high emotional range — the fear has subsided as they are used to the body's 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 frog in the throat.
If you are not yet ready to deal with the underlying grief or pain, doing things to reignite the parasympathetic nervous system can help reclaim homeostasis in the body, such as; meditation, lying on the floor in the semi-supine position, listening to a soothing voice or music, seeking support, playing, and allowing physical reassuring touch. Indeed, these are band aid measures, and the wise would do well to look beyond the present; so, though it is difficult, and the resistance you might face is overwhelming, it can only do you good to conceptualise, understand and integrate feelings that may arise from this physiological response in the throat.
Where to begin
Sitting alongside universal responses to fear, stress or grief, each of our voices is unique and shaped by our experiences and culture. A great speaker has a firm grasp of how and why their voice is the way it is, alongside the tools at hand to be able to adapt their voice to the situation and make the most of its potential when communicating with others - influence, being a prime example.
To help you further your education, I recommend this book by Patsy Rodenburg, The Right to Speak, which lays the groundwork for what it requires to become a great speaker but also to understand why your voice sounds like "you", contains lessons to navigate murky waters like the Globus Sensation, and other valuable insights you'll likely find nowhere else.
* Please consult a therapist or medical professional if the problem persists.
Andrei Schiller-Chan has been a voice coach for the last six years and has taught in universities around the UK. His work specialises in public speaking, voice training, performance coaching, and speech disorders. He holds a masters in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and currently resides in London, UK.