Mental Health Body Language Guide

Ellen Lees
By Ellen Lees,
updated on Jan 23, 2018

Mental Health Body Language Guide

We can say so much without uttering a word, but for those not already fluent in body language, we’ve translated some of the silent signs that might suggest someone’s struggling with their mental health

woman stretcing

Mental health awareness in the UK has accelerated in the past year. More of us are talking, and people are now understanding that mental health is not only an issue for the minority, it’s a serious issue for society, given that every year, nearly 10 million UK adults will experience mental ill-health.

While conversation is thriving, not everyone is so transparent about how they’re feeling. Mental health affects us all, and so recognising the signs of someone in need is key in supporting people, and breaking the stigma.

Body language (kinesics) is a physical, nonverbal form of communication.

The person might not know they’re doing it, but it’s their way of conveying a feeling or intention. These nonverbal clues are important in recognising what another person is feeling, thinking, or even dreading. When we know the kinesics and what they mean, we can practise empathy and sympathy and provide the necessary support.

It’s easy to live your life, oblivious to your surroundings. But becoming more conscious of the people around you, and how they feel, can be important in saving someone a lot of stress and in some cases, their life.

Here are six forms of body language and what they typically mean:

Arms crossed

While you might cross your arms if you’re cold, it can also be a way to show defence. A person may disagree with what is being said or done by the people around them, so cross their arms as a protective motion. People may also cross their arms and bend over to self-comfort, as though they are tucking themselves away.

Ear pulling

Pulling or rubbing an earlobe commonly means they are trying to make a decision, but remain unsure. Some believe it means a person feels vulnerable and is trying to self-soothe, while others say it’s the sign of a liar.

sad woman in crowd

Furrowed brow

Eyes and eyebrows are very expressive. The position of our eyebrows can mean many things, like anger, surprise or worry. But a furrowed brow is a common sign that the person is nervous or tense.

Hair playing

Twisting or fondling hair during conversation can be a sign of low confidence or insecurity. When uncomfortable, we tend to return to childlike comforts – touching something soft can reassure us that everything’s OK.

Foot movement

Shifting weight or moving our feet in a rhythmic, repetitive way can be an expression of impatience, nerves or excitement. This action can also mean the person feels fearful or even intimidated, as though keeping their feet moving can provide an escape if needed.


Repetitive behaviours are a way to pass time, enjoy a moment or help us deal with stress and anxiety. Rocking back and forth while in a trance-like state is typically a sign of extreme stress, like hearing distressing news or after witnessing a horrific event. This is a very primitive but effective act of self-soothing.

If you are worried about someone who is exhibiting these signs, here are some tips for reaching out and starting a conversation. Talking about mental health can be daunting, but remember, you don’t have to be an expert to give support:

woman streyching

1. Choose the right setting

First, be aware of your surroundings, give yourself plenty of time and keep it casual. If they’re a friend or colleague, a quick “How are you?” over a cup of tea is a great way to start. Suggest meeting for a catch-up in a neutral space, like a cafe, for a less intimidating location. If you’re worried about a stranger, simply asking “Are you OK?” can help. You might be the only one to have asked.

2. Ask the right questions

Keep the conversation positive. Be supportive and open-minded, offering them the time to open up. Of course, it’s not easy but ask how they are. Say you’ve noticed they’ve been acting differently and ask if there’s any way you can help.

3. Listen

If they’re ready to talk, give them your full attention and listen without interruption. This is their moment, and they may have been holding things in for a very long time. Focus on the little steps they’re taking – remind them that talking about it takes courage and is the first step to feeling better.

Keep the conversation going. If they’re a stranger, and you’re comfortable doing so, maybe share your phone number so they can text you afterwards. Follow up with friends and reassure them that they can talk to you – whenever they need you.

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