These Are Some Nonverbal Signs That Someone Is In Distress

These Are Some Nonverbal Signs That Someone Is In Distress

What are some nonverbal tells of emotional distress? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Dr. Abbie Maroño, PhD in behavior analysis, director of research network Behavioural Research In Communications (BRINC), on Quora:

This is a great question, and one that myself and my research team have spent a lot of time investigating.

But before I answer, just think, have you ever found yourself with your face in your hands, pacing the room, or maybe even tugging at your hair or nails after being given news bad news or after a stressful day? Of course you have. But, did you consciously say to yourself “I am going to press the palms of my hands against my eyelids to relieve tension”, or did you just do it without thinking? The nonverbal behaviors we exhibit following an acute stressor are automatic responses to that stressor and they function to help us physiologically and psychologically self-regulate.

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With this in mind, after we experience emotional distress there is an increase in self-touch behaviors, that is, movement of the hands to the body, face, clothing, accessories, hair, or other body parts, because these have been shown to help relieve stress, and calm down the nervous system response. The emotional intensity is also evident in the intensity of the muscular contraction or pressure applied. For example, when you see someone grabbing their arm and their grip begins to get tighter, placing the fingers or palms on the eyelids and increasing pressure or rubbing the eyelids, or witnessing someone go from touching to rubbing and/ or scratching the face. You can also see this manifest in the evolution of touching the hair or skin on the fingers next to the nailbed, to pulling at it, and in extreme cases, pulling it out. It has also been shown that people may purse or compress their lips when experiencing some distress, and this behavior may develop into lip biting.

Additionally, the open-closed dimension of one’s posture and movements provide an insight into their emotional state. Closed postures and movements tend to increase following emotional distress, such as crossing or keeping the arms and legs close to the body, as well as lowering the head, tucking one’s feet under the chair and bringing the knees close together, and limiting movement. Any objects or accessories that a person has with them, such as a bag or jacket, are also likely to be brought closer to their body. It is speculated that these occur as a way to ‘shrink into oneself’ and ‘reduce their presence’.

However, it’s important to remember that observing someone engage in any one of these behaviors does not always mean they are in emotional distress, rather you should look for multiple indicators at once or behaviors that occurring consecutively.

This question originally appeared on Quora – the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

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