Nonverbal Signs of Stress

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 15 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Stress can feel like a constant part of life. It is important to be able to identify signs of stress even when that stress has not been spoken of verbally. This lesson reviews nonverbal signs of stress and tips for stress reduction.

Nonverbal Signs of Stress

One bright sunny day, a father took his daughter to the zoo. While they were walking through the darkened reptile exhibit, he noticed his normally hyperactive child become very slow in her movements. She started to hold on very tightly, sweat formed on her palms, and he felt her heart rate increase. It was then that she screamed and ran out of the enclosure crying.

Nonverbal refers to lacking speech. Why would it be important to be aware of nonverbal signs of stress? As the above scenario shows, sometimes a person can be under severe stress without being able to express that strain with words. Being able to identify nonverbal signs of stress can help shorten the time of another's stress and support them in finding stress regulators while their level of stress is still low enough to handle.

Nonverbal signs of stress can be grouped into two categories: extreme behaviors (both in line with and opposite of natural tendencies) and biological signs of stress.

Extreme Behaviors

Extremes that Match Natural Tendencies

Extreme behavior can be a sign of internalized, unspoken stress. If a naturally outgoing person suddenly just won't stop talking at all, the person may be feeling uncomfortable in the situation (stress) and trying to deal with her stress through overcompensated behaviors.

The same is true for an introvert who suddenly goes from standing in the corner at a party to moving to a room on their own. When a person suddenly exhibits extreme versions of their normal tendencies, it can be a sign that they are trying to hide their internal stress by pretending everything is okay.

Some natural tendencies that can increase to extreme levels during times of stress are:

  • fidgety movement: bouncing legs, tapping fingers, or rubbing materials
  • fingernail biting
  • talkativeness
  • isolationist tendencies
  • twirling/sucking on hair
  • repetitive behaviors (such as tics or OCD behaviors)
  • behaviors that are unconscious calming behaviors

Opposite Behaviors

Sometimes the best indicator that someone is dealing with a lot of stress is strange behavior that is opposite their normal behavior. When a normally outgoing, charismatic person suddenly becomes sullen and quiet, it may be a nonverbal sign that the person is dealing with a stressful situation. Alternatively, if a quiet person becomes loud and brash, they may be dealing with unspoken stressful situations.

Extreme behaviors are often signs of a problem that a person is not sharing (or may not even realize themselves). Be watchful for these types of nonverbal signs of stress in others, and yourself.

Biological Signs of Stress

Biological responses to stress are those responses that are seen within the body.

While you may not be able to see evidence of these signs of stress in someone, it is good to be aware of these stress signs in yourself. Also, you may be able to subtly check for these through casual contact with a person under stress.

Some biological responses to stress are increased:

  • heart rate (casually holding a person's hand may allow you to feel the heart rate through the wrist)
  • fast shallow breathing
  • tightened muscles (you may be able to see clenched facial muscles or hands squeezed into balls)
  • increased blood pressure (sometimes a person's face may redden as their blood pressure rises quickly)

Being aware of these nonverbal signs in yourself and others can help you to act quickly to reduce the internal level of stress or alter the external stress inducer.

Reduction of Stress

Obviously, the first goal in stress reduction is to identify the cause of the stress. If something can be done to change the environment into a non-stress inducing environment, then that is the best-case scenario. If a person is terrified of cats and you own a cat, the best solution to reduce that person's stress level in your home is to visit in a room without the cat present.

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