11 body language signs that someone feels nervous around you, according to psychology

No matter what we try to hide with words, our bodies often give the game away.

That’s because we unwittingly convey our emotions and intentions through body language.

One of the most common emotions that can be easily detected is nervousness.

Maybe it’s talking to their crush, a job interview, a first date, giving a speech, or a social gathering that has someone feeling a bit hot under the collar.

Being able to recognize the signs of nervousness in others can help you navigate the situation with more understanding and empathy.

So let’s take a look at some of the telltale clues and the psychology behind it. 

1) Flushed cheeks

Aka, the humble blush.

Feeling red in the face is a natural consequence of our fight or flight response.

It’s triggered in various scenarios like when we’re embarrassed and feeling self-conscious.

So it’s a clear sign of nervousness as it’s a physiological response to emotional distress that we struggle to control.

Dr. Tanya Azarani, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychotherapist says:

“When a real or imagined social transgression triggers feelings of shame, adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands causing vasodilation of the blood vessels in the face and neck. As more blood flushes the face, a red complexion and the sensation of warmth develops.”

2) Cracking knuckles

I’m very much one of those people who cringe at the sound of someone cracking their knuckles.

I’ve never understood why they do it.

But apparently, it could be a sign of stress and anxiousness.

According to Robert H. Shmerling, MD, the Senior Faculty Editor at Harvard Health Publishing “It can become a habit or a way to deal with nervous energy; some describe it as a way to “release tension.”

3) Voice changes

Speaking quickly, at a higher pitch, or stumbling over words can be another sign of nervousness.

Whilst you might think it’s an inconvenience that you’re letting your nerves show, you could be surprised to hear it can be an intentional strategy from your body.

Even though it’s subconscious, there may well be a good reason for it. For example, in the romance department.

One study showed that nervous reactions can actually enhance your chances of attracting the object of your desire.

That’s because we use these little signals to know someone is interested.

Amongst some of the classic expressions of nerves were vocal differences. As Wendy L. Patrick explains in Psychology Today:

“Both men and women reported speaking faster but with less ability for clear expression. Women reported speaking with a higher pitch and an unsteady tone of voice. Viewing this behavior from the opposite perspective, study participants observed similar nervous reactions by people they perceived found them attractive.”

4) Fidgeting

When someone feels nervous, they may fidget with their hands, hair, or objects around them

Look out for things like:

  • Tapping fingers
  • Twirling hair
  • Nail biting or picking
  • Playing with a pen

Why does this indicate someone is feeling nervous?

According to BBC Science Focus, it’s a way of blowing off extra steam.

“Anxious fidgeting occurs because the body has elevated levels of stress hormones, which are prepping your muscles for sudden exertion. If you don’t have any tigers to run away from at that moment, all that energy has nowhere to go and jiggling your leg or biting your nails is a way to partially relieve that.”

5) Avoiding eye contact

Nervous individuals may avoid making direct eye contact with you.

Any shy person will already know how excruciating it can be to make eye contact.

That’s because eye contact is a powerful thing and can cause overstimulation in the brain. 

When someone is feeling vulnerable, this intense connection can be too much for them to make, as highlighted in The Cut:

“Direct gaze is an incredibly powerful source of social and emotional information. Eye contact is associated with strong communication, memory for faces, and social connection. And while some of this information can otherwise be gleaned through body language or tone of voice, eye contact remains paramount in seeking emotional intimacy.”

6) Sweating

Excessive sweating, especially on the palms or forehead, can indicate someone is very nervous around you.

So. what is going on biologically behind the scenes to cause this reaction?

It’s because of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol being released into the body.

“When you’re anxious, your brain sends signals down your body to prepare for disaster. Your heart races, your blood pumps, and your internal temperature rises. Thus, you start to sweat,” explains therapist Dr. Kyle Zrenchik.

Rather unhelpfully, this sort of nervous sweating is more pungent in smell than regular sweat.

That’s because nervous sweating comes from different glands, as family therapist Saba Lurie points out to Psych Central.

“The sweat they excrete is thicker and contains more protein and lipids, which, in combination with the bacteria found on our skin, results in sweat that has a distinct odor.”

pic1917 11 body language signs that someone feels nervous around you, according to psychology

7) Nervous laughter

Laughing at inappropriate times or nervously can be a sign of discomfort.

Several studies have looked at the phenomenon of laughing when we feel nervous.

One of the earliest and most well-known was by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s.

He asked participants to administer electric shocks to a stranger — which is clearly no laughing matter.

Yet he discovered that people often laugh nervously in uncomfortable situations.

But why?

We don’t really know for certain. But some experts say that it can reduce our fear and anxiety and is a reaction to strong external stimuli.

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has also argued that laughter may help as a distraction from pain.

As the Healthline points out:

“Nervous laughter may also just be part of a larger pattern within the brain to react with strong emotions of all sorts to emotionally provocative stimuli, no matter if it seems appropriate.”

8) Increased blinking

As well as avoiding eye contact, rapid blinking is one of the more subtle signs that someone is feeling uncomfortable around you.

According to Dr Liji Thomas

“The rate of blinking increases when you’re talking, when you’re nervous, in pain, or when you’re exposed to very bright lights. Frequent blinking may also occur as a nervous tic in some people.”

It’s thought this might be because when you are under stress, you may become more sensitive to light and eye strain.

9) Self-soothing swaying

We’re talking about things like rocking or gently swaying from side to side.

I know that I do this when I’m stressed.

It’s almost like a baby being gently rocked, it becomes very calming to the nervous system.

Maybe you’ve seen someone shift from one foot and back to the other too. It’s the same sort of thing.

As explained by the Neuroscience Institute, the culprit for this behavior could be a reaction to the chemical messenger Dopamine:

“If dopamine levels are high, a person will feel excited and happy. This surge of dopamine makes them feel good. However, to prevent feeling overwhelmed by this intense emotion, a person might start moving around in an attempt to release energy.

“On the other hand, when dopamine levels are low—due to extreme terror or traumatic events—a person may feel depressed or agitated. In response, they may begin rocking back and forth.”

10) Closed off body language

When we’re nervous we may feel more guarded.

So without realizing it, we attempt to close ourselves off from what feels like danger, even when it’s more of a psychological rather than physical threat.

As Changing Minds explains:

“When we feel threatened, our body language becomes defensive. We use closure to place the barriers of our arms and legs across in front of us to defend ourselves from attack. When we close, we also make our body smaller, reducing the size of the target.”

That can mean that someone may display the following sorts of body language:

  • Crossing arms
  • Hunching shoulders
  • Slightly turning away or leaning back

All of these are subconscious signs of discomfort.

11) Freezing up

Some people may freeze in place or become stiff when feeling nervous.

It’s also that blank expression of someone who doesn’t know what to say.

We’ve all seen it. They get tense and stuck, somewhat like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

When nerves strike, it can cause us to restrict gestures or movements, and, yet again, it’s our good old fight or flight instinct that we have to thank for it.

It’s the body’s way of pausing to prepare for action. In fact a 2017 review found that freezing can be the brain’s way of buying more time before it decides how to respond to threat.

Meanwhile, there’s also evidence that freezing helps us to dissociate from what is happening, perhaps easing the discomfort we feel.

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Tina Fey

Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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