How to Read Fear in Body Language

Words are only one way in which people communicate. There is also a wide array of nonverbal behavior, or body language, that we use to express feelings such as happiness, sadness, anger and fear. Fearful body language often manifests as anxiety, nervousness or even aggression. Here's how to identify signs of fear in body language.

Pay attention to the person's eyes. People who are anxious, nervous or fearful often avoid making direct eye-contact. Instead, they may seem to look at the floor, at their hands or at their surroundings. Fear may also be indicated by a wide-eyed stare and unwavering eye contact.

Look at the person's facial expressions. Wide eyes, raised eyebrows and a furrowed brow typically indicate unease, as do flared nostrils. The mouth might be tightly clenched, open or the person might bite his or her upper or lower lips.

Notice where the person's body is in relation to yours. A person who is fearful or uncomfortable will usually maintain a greater area of personal space, hesitating to approach you physically. He or she might also position an object between the two of you, such as a table or another person.

Analyze the person's body posture. Slouching or hunching often indicate fear or discomfort, as the person attempts to minimize themselves physically. Other people may appear to grow more aggressive, standing taller and squaring their shoulders, as the person enters a "fight or flight" mindset brought on by fear.

Pay attention to the direction the person's feet are pointing. If they are angled away from you, the person may be seeking an "out," looking to leave you rather than stay near you.

Note arms and hands. Crossed arms suggest the person is defensive and busy hands indicate unease, which may both be due to fear. The person might drum their fingers or fidget with clothing, napkins or other objects.

Look for other nervous behaviors, such as shaking or tapping legs and feet, rocking back and forth, rapid breathing, and speaking either very quickly or very little.

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  • Reading body language can be easy, but can also be complicated since it is a combination of factors. Fear might be indicated by just one or two of the above behaviors, or may be a combination of several, depending on the person.

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