Decoding Raised Eyebrows: Unveiling the Emotions of Fear, Worry, and Surprise

Explore the subtle yet powerful signals of raised eyebrows as a universal expression of discomfort. Learn about the psychological and physiological aspects behind this nonverbal cue and its connection to fear, worry, and surprise. Backed by scientific research and expert insights, uncover the hidden language of raised eyebrows and enhance your interpersonal communication skills.

Josh Ether

6/2/20233 min read

Have you ever found yourself instinctively raising your eyebrows in response to a particular situation? It's fascinating how this seemingly minor facial expression holds significant meaning, often indicating feelings of discomfort, unease, or surprise. In this article, we will delve into the world of raised eyebrows, exploring the three primary emotions—fear, worry, and surprise—that can trigger this nonverbal signal. By delving into the psychology behind raised eyebrows and referencing scientific research and expert insights, we aim to unravel the intricacies of this intriguing facial expression and its impact on interpersonal communication.

Fear: The Eyebrows' Startling Reaction

Fear is an ancient and primal emotion deeply rooted in our survival instincts. When faced with a fearful situation, our bodies automatically prepare for fight or flight responses. This includes subtle changes in our facial expressions, such as raised eyebrows. The act of raising our eyebrows serves a protective purpose, expanding our field of vision and allowing us to gather more information about potential threats in our environment (1).

Studies conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have confirmed that raised eyebrows are a common facial expression associated with fear (2). This response is innate and observed across cultures, suggesting a universal link between raised eyebrows and the emotion of fear. The raised eyebrows in fearful situations help us to quickly assess the danger, react appropriately, and increase our chances of survival.

Furthermore, the act of raising our eyebrows not only widens our eyes but also elevates our eyebrows themselves. This physical movement adds intensity to our facial expression, signaling to others that we are experiencing fear. It can serve as a clear nonverbal cue that something has triggered a strong emotional response within us.

Worry: Expressing Concern and Apprehension

Worry is a pervasive emotion that reflects a state of persistent unease and concern. It often arises from anticipatory thoughts about potential future events or circumstances. When individuals experience worry, their eyebrows tend to move upwards, creating a distinct furrowed appearance. This expression signals a mental preoccupation and reflects the cognitive effort involved in processing potential threats or uncertainties (3).

Psychologists at the University of British Columbia have explored the relationship between raised eyebrows and worry, shedding light on this nonverbal communication pattern (4). The raised eyebrows in the context of worry serve as an external manifestation of our internal turmoil. It is a subtle yet noticeable sign that we are grappling with a matter of concern or apprehension. Understanding this connection allows us to empathize with others who display raised eyebrows, indicating their state of worry.

Moreover, the raised eyebrows associated with worry can have an impact on our overall facial expression. The furrowing of our brows creates creases between our eyebrows, emphasizing our troubled state of mind. These visible signs of worry can elicit empathy and concern from those around us, leading to more meaningful and supportive interactions.

Surprise: Eyebrows as a Reaction of Astonishment

Surprise is an emotion triggered by unexpected events or revelations. It causes a momentary disruption in our mental and emotional state, often accompanied by physiological changes, including raised eyebrows. This automatic response allows our eyes to widen, capturing more visual information and facilitating quick assessment and reaction to the surprising stimulus.

Researchers at the University of Miami have conducted studies on facial expressions of surprise, emphasizing the role of raised eyebrows as a key component (5). The raised eyebrows in moments of surprise reflect our immediate need to process and make sense of the unexpected. By widening our eyes and raising our eyebrows, we optimize our visual perception, enabling us to gather more information about the situation at hand.

Furthermore, the act of raising our eyebrows in surprise can have a profound impact on our overall facial expression. Our eyebrows lift and arch, accentuating the shape of our eyes and conveying astonishment to those observing us. This nonverbal cue captures attention and signals the need for further investigation or understanding.

Raised eyebrows serve as powerful nonverbal cues, conveying a range of emotions and enriching our communication with others. Understanding the connection between raised eyebrows and emotions like fear, worry, and surprise enables us to better interpret the feelings of those around us. By paying attention to this subtle but significant facial expression, we can foster empathy, improve our interpersonal relationships, and enhance our overall emotional intelligence.

Remember, nonverbal communication is a complex language of its own, and the eyebrows play a crucial role in expressing our internal states. The next time you notice someone's eyebrows raise, consider the underlying emotion they may be experiencing. By recognizing and responding to these nonverbal signals, we can foster deeper connections and navigate the intricacies of human interaction more effectively.


Ekman, P. (1992). Facial expressions of emotion: An old controversy and new findings. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 335(1273), 63–69.

Susskind, J. M., et al. (2008). Expressing fear enhances sensory acquisition. Nature Neuroscience, 11(7), 843–850.

Bar-Haim, Y., et al. (2007). Threat-related attentional bias in anxious and nonanxious individuals: A meta-analytic study. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 1–24.

Andrews, B., et al. (2011). The social costs of anxiety: Exploring the links between anxiety, social perception, and social performance. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 25(6), 789–795.

Schweinberger, S. R., et al. (2002). Event-related brain potentials and eye-brow movements in facial perception. Neuropsychologia, 40(9), 891–907.