Because true anxiety is both a physical and mental reaction to stress, it is very difficult to maintain a complete “poker face” consistently over time. When someone’s anxiety level is high, their body produces adrenaline and other hormones.
This response is usually referred to as the “fight or flight” response. Our bodies, at a very primitive level, are preparing to either fight for our lives or flee. So many of the signs are the result of real, physical processes and show up as physical symptoms of anxiety.
These are general signs of stress, linked here to anxiety, but not necessarily specific just to anxiety. Someone who feels stress for another reason, such as lying or a physical ailment, may show these signs as well – the body doesn’t distinguish the cause of the stress, it just reacts.
• Pale face or extremities – blood flow is moving toward the core to protect vital organs.
• Wide pupils, blinking.
• Downcast eyes
• Dry throat, clearing of the throat – adrenalin acts like an antihistamine and saliva production is lessened.
• Rapid heartbeat and breathing – preparation for running or fighting
• Sweating – the heightened metabolism is generating heat
• Inability to remain still – the body is producing extra energy and increasing tension in muscles
More subtle cues
Other cues are more indicative of the mental state and less obvious without looking for them. Some are categorized as escape behaviors – looking around for an exit or pointing the feet toward an escape route. Others fall under comfort reactions – fiddling with small items or the hair, constantly shifting in a chair. Still others are reassurance behaviors – touching the face, crossing the arms.
Other visible signs don’t fall under a particular picture, but as humans, we are very good at spotting them in our fellow men. A fearful face is a good example. It’s hard to pin down just what that means in any specific person, but we know it when we see it. For example, when a plane hits turbulence, if you look around at your fellow passengers, you will likely see the “fear expression” on many different faces.
Many behaviors are context driven. This can lead to mistakes if we think someone is anxious because they seem ready to spring out of their chair – when really the wallet in their back pocket has shifted to an awkward and painful position.
Spotting someone who is anxious also doesn’t tell you why they are on alert. One cannot tell, for example, if someone is lying or just nervous because they are talking to an authority figure. Many of the cues for anxiety are also mirrored whenever we are overly alert. Sexual attraction, for example, shares many of the same behaviors.
One final limitation is that body cues are often culturally skewed. In many cultures, for example, it is impolite to look someone directly in the eyes. Clearing the throat can also have many meanings.