How to Spot Nervous and Stressed Body Language

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What Every Body Is Saying" by Joe Navarro and Marvin Karlins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How does stress affect your nonverbal communication? What body language cues indicate that a person is stressed or nervous?

According to former FBI agent Joe Navarro, when people are stressed, they tend to perform self-comforting acts as a natural coping mechanism. This can manifest in nervous body language, such as massaging the neck, playing with the hair, or adjusting jewelry.

Here’s how you can spot stressed body language, according to Navarro.

How Stress Manifests in Body Language

When people are stressed, they tend to perform self-comforting acts which can take on many forms such as touching the body and engaging in distractions.

Self-Comforting Touch. According to Joe Navarro, the author of What Every Body Is Saying, one stressed body language cue is self-comforting. People often comfort themselves when under stress by rubbing or massaging their necks, faces, or limbs. He explains that the neck and the face have many nerve endings that, when rubbed, release calming chemicals inside the brain and lower heart rate and blood pressure. These self-comforting behaviors can manifest in different ways for men and women—women tend to cover the dimples between their collarbones, while men prefer touching their faces.

(Shortform note: Research has shown that self-comforting acts, such as touch, have immediate stress-reducing benefits, decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones while increasing oxytocin, a hormone associated with affection and love. Massage, in particular, can even improve your focus and immune system functioning.)

There are numerous other ways a person might use touch to soothe themself, such as sliding their hands down their thighs while seated (which serves to both calm them and dry any sweat from their palms), hugging themselves, or rubbing their inner cheek with their tongue.

(Shortform note: Some researchers suggest that people touch their faces more than other parts of their bodies—up to 800 times a day. Like Navarro, they argue that these behaviors tend to increase in frequency when you’re experiencing negative emotions, adding that they also increase when you’re trying to focus on a demanding cognitive task. They found that suppressing self-touch can lead to poorer memory. This highlights the important role of self-touch in regulating not just your emotions but your cognitive performance.)

Self-Comforting Distractions. When people experience discomfort, they seek distractions as a way to relieve stress, such as tidying their clothes, playing with their hair, or adjusting jewelry. Navarro explains that, in moments of stress, the limbic system instructs the body to distract itself from the stressor. People might drum their fingers on a table, speak to themselves, or whistle a tune.

(Shortform note: While fidgeting may be a way to relieve discomfort, psychologists suggest that people also fidget when they need to concentrate on something. One study involving children with ADHD found that fidgeting can improve the ability to retain new information. However, excessive fidgeting can also be a sign of underlying conditions such as restless leg syndrome.)

How to Spot Nervous and Stressed Body Language

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Here's what you'll find in our full What Every Body Is Saying summary:

  • A guide from a former FBI agent on how to decipher body language
  • How to master the language of nonverbal communication
  • How to detect when someone is lying to you and access their true thoughts

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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