Emotional Body Language: Decoding the 4 Ways It Affects Us

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Definitive Book of Body Language" by Allan Pease and Barbara Pease. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is emotional body language? How can it affect your inner world? How does it impact your relationships?

Authors Allan and Barbara Pease delve into the captivating realm of emotional body language in The Definitive Book of Body Language. They unveil how your body language not only reflects your emotions but also wields the power to shape them and influence others.

Read on to learn the four ways emotional body language influences you and those around you.

Decoding Emotional Body Language

In The Definitive Book of Body Language, authors Allan and Barbara Pease argue that your body language—your facial expressions, gestures, and posture—always reflects your emotions. They explain that there’s a strong physiological link between your emotions and your body language. This link is bidirectional: Your emotions trigger physiological responses that get reflected in your body language, and your body language, in turn, influences your emotions and physiological responses. Let’s explore emotional body language more deeply, including how this two-way relationship affects you.

1) Your Body Language Reflects Your Emotions

According to the authors, each time you experience an emotion, your brain sends a signal to your body to produce a physiological response. These responses include changes to your heart or breathing rate, your blood pressure, your muscle tension, and your hormone levels. Each of these physiological changes then creates a corresponding physical response—and each physical response signals to others what you’re feeling.

Example: When you feel angry, your body releases stress hormones that cause your heart and breathing rate to increase and your muscles to tense up. These physiological changes create corresponding physical responses—for instance, your face reddens, your jaw feels tight, your fists clench, and your tone of voice becomes louder. Each of these physical responses signals to others that you are angry.

Mapping Emotional Body Language

Research on body mapping expands on how emotions create physical responses by revealing that different emotions activate different parts of the body. One study mapped this emotional-physiological response as follows:

Happiness: the entire body
Anger: the upper half of the body and the arms, with some activation in the legs and feet
Fear: the upper half of the body, excluding the arms, with some activation in the feet
Disgust: the upper half of the body and the arms
Sadness: the chest and head
Surprise: the chest and head
Anxiety: above the pelvis, excluding the arms
Love: the entire body, though less so in the legs
Contempt: the head and the hands
Pride: the torso, head, and arms
Shame: the torso and head
– Envy: the chest and head

2) Your Body Language Influences Your Emotions

In addition to reflecting your emotions, your body language also influences your emotions. Allan and Barbara Pease explain that your physical movements—facial expressions, gestures, posture—also create physiological responses in your body. Each of these physiological responses creates a corresponding emotional response.

Example: Smiling is one example of how emotional body language impacts you physically. When you smile, your body releases endorphins that help to lower your heart rate and relax your muscles. Each of these physical responses signals to your brain that you’re happy, causing your body to release more endorphins that further improve your mood.

(Shortform note: Studies on somatopsychic response support the idea that body language can influence emotions. Researchers examining the correlation between frowning and depression injected Botox into depressed patients’ faces to remove their frown lines. Sixty percent of the participants experienced significant mood improvements after the procedure. This finding suggests that even minor changes in body language can significantly impact an individual’s emotional state.)

3) It Helps You Control Your Emotions

Allan and Barbara Pease argue that awareness of your emotional body language helps you control your emotions during interactions. They explain that intentionally assuming different body language positions helps you experience more positive emotions.

Example: You feel nervous during a job interview and want to feel confident. You notice that you’re slumped in your chair with a frown on your face and your arms crossed. Because you understand your emotional body language, you intentionally adapt your physical presence to signal to your brain that you are confident. For instance, you sit up straight, relax your facial muscles, and unfold your arms. These changes create physiological responses in your body that make you feel more confident and also make you appear more confident to others.

(Shortform note: In contrast, some psychologists note that deliberately adopting different body language positions to feel more positive can sometimes backfire, causing you to feel more negative. Attempting to appear more positive involves suppressing negative emotions, which can intensify those negative emotions rather than alleviate them. This is because the effort required to suppress negative emotions can trigger physiological changes associated with stress, such as increased heart rate and sweating. Therefore, these psychologists suggest that you’re more likely to feel positive if you focus on accepting and expressing your emotions, rather than suppressing or masking them through forms of body language manipulation.)

4) It Affects How Your Words Are Interpreted

The authors argue that people are more likely to respond positively to your words when they trust you, and the degree to which people trust you hinges on how well your words and your body language align:

When your body language aligns with your words, people trust you because they feel as though you’re expressing yourself honestly. For example, your partner trusts you when you tell her you love her because you look her in the eye and smile when you say it. As a result, she responds positively to your words by showing signs of affection—for instance, by relaxing her posture, smiling, and making eye contact. 

When your body language doesn’t align with your words, people don’t trust you because they feel as though you’re lying or hiding something from them. For an example of how emotional body language can foster mistrust, imagine your partner doesn’t trust you when you tell her you love her because you avoid eye contact and clench your jaw when you say it. As a result, she responds negatively to your words by showing emotional signs of withdrawal in her body language—for instance, by crossing her arms, turning away from you, and avoiding eye contact. 

(Shortform note: Research clarifies why we instinctively interpret body language to assess trustworthiness before responding to others. To ensure survival, our ancestors relied on nonverbal communication to avoid physical danger when forming alliances or assessing potential threats from other groups. Though we’ve since developed the ability to communicate verbally, our innate tendency to avoid danger hasn’t evolved, which is why we continue to seek out signs of trust. However, instead of ensuring physical security, we now predominantly rely on body language to ensure emotional security during social interactions.)

Exercise: How Does Your Body Language Make You Feel?

Allan and Barbara Pease suggest that intentionally changing your body language influences your emotional state. Let’s explore how adopting different expressions, gestures, and postures can change the way you feel.

  • Notice and describe your body language and how you feel. (For example, you might be frowning, slouching in your chair, and feeling bored.)
  • Deliberately hold a broad smile for at least one minute. Write down any changes you notice in your emotions.
  • Scrunch up your face and hold this pose for at least one minute. Write down any changes you notice in your emotions.
  • If possible, stand up with your head held high and your hands on your hips, elbows out. After holding this pose for at least one minute, write down any changes you notice in your emotions.
  • Relax and sit comfortably. Notice and describe your body language and how you feel, noting any changes from your original response at the start of this exercise.
Emotional Body Language: Decoding the 4 Ways It Affects Us

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  • The role body language plays in shaping your daily interactions
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  • How to adapt your body language to garner positive responses from others

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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