A Lump in the Throat

A common psychosomatic complaint is having ‘a lump in the throat’ or ‘a terrible pain in my throat’ or ‘a constant need to clear my throat.’  The medical term for this condition is ‘globus hystericus’ – or lump in the throat.  It was Sigmud Freud who first described the condition and he saw it as a symptom of stress, anxiety or depression.  The experience can be intensely painful or a constant irritant.  Some individuals worry that they may have throat cancer and contact their local general medical practitioner.  Once the doctor has ruled out cancer, he or she tends to consign the symptoms to that seemingly grey area of ‘emotional unknown’ and prescribe antidepressants or mild tranquilisers.  However, what the person really needs is the emotional safety and support to speak what, to this point in time, has been unspeakable.  The lump in the throat is a clever creation, what I call an embodiment of unexpressed trauma, upset, unresolved conflicts, unexpressed grief etc.  The lump in the throat becomes a substitute for what you really want to talk about, but dare not.  In other words, it is safe for you to talk about the terrible pain in your throat, but not safe to talk about the emotional pain that the physical condition is wisely embodying.

According to the Eastern system of chakras (the body’s energy centres), the throat chakra (or visudhha) is all about communication and inner truth.  It is the crucial link between heart and head, so that when it is defensively blocked or weak, it is not safe for us to say how we truly feel.  Clearly, the greater the unsafety to speak what is true, the less we talk about the way we feel, and the more we suppress our emotions; the result is a greater blockage in the throat.

Not only is the lump in the throat a substitute way of talking about what is emotionally blocked, there are several other ways to indirectly express what you dare not otherwise say.  A common substitute is to be very involved in the emotional turmoil of others, providing great empathy, support and understanding for their inner turmoil.  These responses are the very ones you need to provide for yourself, but, obviously, not yet in a place to give to yourself.

Another common substitute means for giving indirect attention to what we need to assert and act upon is keeping a journal or diary.  Very often, an individual’s journal holds the secrets of the heart, unexpressed need for love, unresolved grief, unexpressed anger, the deepest longings of the self.  Some parents are shocked when they come upon their son’s or daughter’s diary and read about their inner turmoil.  Their responses needs to be to question why was it their child did not feel safe to express his or her unhappiness to them or, indeed, to anybody else.  When the reaction is to blame the child, the need to hide the truth becomes even more urgent.

Tonsillitis is a common condition in children and sometimes may be embodying a child’s fear of speaking out, perhaps due to bullying at school or problems at home.  Where there are recurrent bouts of tonsillitis, the use of antibiotics needs to be accompanied by encouraging the child to talk about their inner fears, insecurities or problems in school and elsewhere.  It is also important to ensure that the child is provided with the opportunities to explore their own creativity rather than placing too much emphasis on the value of academic work, a not infrequent experience for children.  Indeed, many children as young as six or seven years complain of being ‘all stressed out by tests.’  It is those children who don’t complain that need a watchful eye and ear to be active on their behalf.  Tonsillitis in adults has a similar substitute purpose as it does for children.  The adult’s immune system is compromised and psychologically their boundaries have been invaded.  Restoring boundaries, saying ‘yes’ to and speaking of one’s own needs and values and ‘no’ to the invasive behaviours of others usually restores healthy boundaries.

Questions then that may need to be asked when you have that lump in the throat or a sore and red throat are:

  • ‘What is that I am having difficulty in swallowing?’
  • ‘What am I afraid of saying or expressing?’
  • ‘What am I not ready to accept and release?’
  • ‘Am I bottling up anger or sadness or grief?’
  • ‘What are the possible reactions from others that block me from saying what I need to say?’

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.