The Body Language of Stress

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

My daughter wants to know why I can't do what Dr. Cal Lightman does. For the benefit of those who've never heard of the man I can tell you he is the world's leading deception expert. If you lie to Lightman, he'll see it in your face and your posture, or hear it in your voice. If you shrug your shoulder, rotate your hand, or even just slightly raise your lower lip, Lightman will spot the lie. At least this is what the promotional literature says. Lightman, played by actor Tim Roth in the series 'Lie to Me', is a work of fiction. I've watched it a couple of times but I simply can't get passed the implausible. The character Lightman frequently shoves his face within six inches of the character he is evaluating then moves his head around as though trying to count the hairs up their nostrils. After a couple of seconds he'll announce, "you're anxious," (who wouldn't be) or worse, will simply back away as though his psychotic event has now passed. I know it's drama, but I still find it weird how a body language expert has such bizarre mannerisms.

This Sharepost is not a crash course in body language. If anything it's a few observations about the dangers of assumptions about body language. As we know, body language is big business. Any of us can attend courses on presentational skills. We learn how to mask emotions and how to 'put on a face' to the world. We've always had the capability to bluff our body language and, to an extent, this should make us better informed about the complexity of language - but it also opens the door to all sorts of misunderstandings.

I can cope with works of fiction, even though I believe they can set up all sorts of expectations in people's minds, but I'm reminded of a situation I came across in which a police officer was convinced a man was lying because of the way he expressed himself verbally. When the officer put it to him that he'd committed a particular crime the accused said something along the lines of, "I was not there and I did not commit that crime." The officer, in all seriousness said an innocent man would not have used such precise language and would have said "wasn't and didn't." A little knowledge and all that

Communication is a complex and dynamic process. In everyday exchanges we supplement what people are saying by clues they provide in their facial expression and other bodily actions. Yet these same expressions, pauses and gestures can be highly misleading or contrived. Imagine for a moment we're sitting on an aircraft when it hits turbulence. This is a good time to observe fear and anxiety on the faces of passengers. This same undiluted anxiety may not be seen on the face of someone who is terrified of meeting new people, yet this is far more typical than any fear-of-life scenario. Anxiety tends to be shapeless, pervasive and puzzling, even to the person who experiences it.

The idea that we can spot someone who is anxious might be slightly more credible than claims about abilities to spot a liar, for example, but the two can get mixed up. Does a liar blink more frequently, perspire more, touch their face and avoid eye contact? Well, they might, but they might not. These are all signs of anxiety, whether you are lying or not. Perfectly law abiding citizens are often highly anxious in the face of authority figures and frequently exhibit displacement behaviors to cope with nerves. And can we assume that liars avoid making eye contact? Some are expert at maintaining it even to a point where body-language experts suggest they over compensate. Again, it's possible, but can we afford to generalize?

So sure, anxiety behavior does exist. We've all seen it and we're probably all familiar with it. But anxiety can be masked, bottled up and concentrated in a form that may not exhibit itself overtly. 'You've got the stomach of a 50 year old air traffic controller.' It's a neat turn of phrase - I heard somewhere. When was the last time you saw one of these people freaking out from anxiety; or the doctor, the nurse or the combat soldier?

Body language is also culture and context specific. So whilst we may be familiar with stereotypical anxiety as displayed through agitation, restlessness, nail biting, lip chewing and the like, some cultures appear entirely passive. Their internal state will be no different, but the outward appearance and the way they respond to questions may differ significantly as to the characteristics, or the assumptions, we are familiar with.
Body language is important but let's not read too much into what we think we see and ignore other things simply because we don't.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of