All You Need to Know About Anxiety and Polygraph Tests: 2023

Anxiety is a natural response to stress or danger, characterized by feelings of fear, nervousness, and apprehension. It is a common emotional state that affects many people, and it can be triggered by a variety of situations, including exams, job interviews, and other high-stress events. It is one of the most common forms of mental illness in our society. In the US, close to 40 million adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, and those who don’t have an anxiety disorder can experience symptoms frequently. A recent nationwide poll discovered that 60% of Americans feel stress and worry daily.

An examiner tests an examinee while he is attached to a polygraph machine.

Polygraph tests, also known as lie detector tests, are a method of measuring physiological responses in order to determine truthfulness. During a polygraph test, various physiological signals are monitored, including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and perspiration. The polygraph, in essence, measures one thing: anxiety. All of these physiological measurements are associated with fear and anxiety.

Polygraph tests are commonly used in law enforcement investigations, pre-employment screenings, and other situations where it is important to determine the truthfulness of a person’s statements.

However, polygraph tests are not always accurate, and there are a number of factors that can influence their results. One of these factors is anxiety, which can cause physiological responses that can be misinterpreted as signs of deception.

It is important to understand the relationship between anxiety and polygraph tests in order to ensure accurate results. By managing anxiety and reducing its impact on physiological responses, individuals can increase the accuracy of their polygraph tests.

Additionally, it is recommended that you work with a qualified professional who can help you manage your anxiety prior to the polygraph test. This may include a mental health professional who can provide support and guidance in managing anxiety as well as a polygraph examiner who can help you understand the test and the physiological responses it measures.


The role of anxiety in polygraph tests

An examinee attached to a polygraph machine

Anxiety plays a significant role in polygraph tests. This is because polygraph tests are designed to measure physiological responses that are believed to be associated with deception.

When an individual is anxious, their body produces a stress response, which includes an increase in heart rate, respiration, and perspiration. These changes can be picked up by the sensors used in a polygraph test and may be interpreted as signs of deception.

Research has shown that anxiety can increase the likelihood of a false positive result in polygraph tests. For example, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that when individuals were told that their responses would be evaluated for signs of deception, their anxiety levels increased, leading to more false positives.


Why anxiety can lead to false positives

An examinee attached to the polygraph

One reason why anxiety can lead to false positives is that it can increase physiological responses such as heart rate and blood pressure, which are often measured during a polygraph test. This can make it difficult to distinguish between a genuine lie and an anxious response, leading to an incorrect interpretation.

Another reason is that anxiety can cause a person to overthink their answers, leading to inconsistencies in their responses. For example, if a person is anxious about being accused of a crime they did not commit, they may become overly focused on their answers and start to doubt themselves, even if they are telling the truth. This can cause them to give inconsistent responses, which can be interpreted as signs of deception.

Furthermore, anxiety can also affect a person’s memory and ability to recall information accurately. This can lead to inconsistencies in their responses and further confuse the results of the test.

Other reasons include:

  • Anxiety can lead to cognitive distortions or irrational thoughts, which can lead a person to falsely believe that they have done something wrong, even if they have not. This can cause them to be more anxious during the polygraph test, which can further skew the results.
  • Anxiety can cause a person to sweat more than usual, which can affect the results of the test. When a person sweats, the moisture on their skin can interfere with the electrodes that are used to measure their physiological responses, leading to inaccurate readings.
  • Pre-test anxiety: It’s not uncommon for individuals to feel anxious or nervous in the days leading up to a polygraph test. This pre-test anxiety can be just as problematic as anxiety during the actual test, as it can lead to false positives due to the same physical responses and cognitive impairment described earlier.


It’s important to note that false positives can have serious consequences, especially in legal and employment contexts. Therefore, it’s essential that administrators of polygraph tests take into account the role of anxiety in the test results and consider other factors that may affect the accuracy of the test.



The physiological effects of anxiety on the body during a polygraph test

A screen reading the polygraph test results

Anxiety affects individuals differently, with some experiencing more severe symptoms than others. When an individual experiences stress or anxiety, their brain will send a signal to their body. The body then releases the stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol. Afterwards, both physical and mental anxiety symptoms appear.

As the signs and symptoms of anxiety are accompanied by autonomic responses such as elevated heart rate, hyperventilation, and breathing difficulties, there is a possibility that they will interfere with the polygraph test.

  • Increased heart rate: When you feel anxious, your heart rate typically increases as your body prepares to respond to a perceived threat. During a polygraph test, the examiner is monitoring your heart rate to detect changes that may indicate deception. However, if your heart rate increases due to anxiety rather than deception, it can lead to a false positive result.
  • Changes in breathing patterns: When you feel anxious, you may breathe more quickly and shallowly, which can impact the accuracy of the polygraph test results. The examiner may interpret changes in breathing patterns as an indication of deception, even if they are actually caused by anxiety.
  • Sweating: When you are nervous, your body makes more sweat because it is more alert. The polygraph test measures changes in your skin’s electrical conductance, which can indicate increased sweating.
  • Muscle tension: Muscle tension is another effect of anxiety that can impact the results of a polygraph test. When you are anxious, your muscles may become tense and rigid.
  • Difficulty speaking: Some people may experience difficulty speaking when they are anxious, which can make it harder to answer questions during the test.
  • Nausea or stomach discomfort: Anxiety can also lead to physical symptoms like nausea or stomach discomfort.


Factors that can contribute to anxiety during polygraph tests

Anxiety during a polygraph examination can be caused by a variety of factors, both internal and external. Here are some factors that can contribute to anxiety during polygraph tests:

  1. Fear of being caught: If you are lying and fear that the polygraph test will reveal your deception, this can cause anxiety.
  2. Fear of the consequences: If you are worried about the potential consequences of the polygraph test, such as losing your job or facing legal charges, this can also cause anxiety.
  3. Lack of control: The feeling of not being in control during the polygraph test can cause anxiety. This is especially true if you are not familiar with the process.
  4. Personal factors: Personal factors such as prior trauma or anxiety disorders can contribute to anxiety during a polygraph test.
  5. Physical discomfort: The physical discomfort associated with the test, such as being strapped to a machine, can also contribute to anxiety.
  6. Cultural differences: Cultural differences can also contribute to anxiety during polygraph tests. For example, some cultures may view the test as a form of humiliation, causing anxiety in those who are required to take it.
  7. Fear of being falsely accused: Some individuals may be concerned about being falsely accused of a crime, even if they are innocent. This fear can increase anxiety during a polygraph test.
  8. Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as heart disease or respiratory problems, can make it more difficult to remain calm during a polygraph test, leading to increased anxiety.


Strategies for managing anxiety before a polygraph test

A picture of beautiful orange sky and an ocean

When faced with a polygraph test, it’s understandable to feel anxious or nervous. However, excessive anxiety can interfere with the accuracy of the test results. Here are some strategies you can use to manage your anxiety before and during the test:

  1. Get a good night’s sleep: Being well-rested can help you feel more alert and focused during the test.
  2. Identify and acknowledge triggers: A significant strategy that can be used to control your anxiety is to identify and acknowledge triggers. In psychology, a “trigger” is a sensory reminder of a traumatic event that can worsen a mental health condition. This is different than being uncomfortable or offended. Common triggers for those with anxiety are:
    • specific sounds, images, or tastes associated with the experience.
    • being mocked or criticized
    • being alone
    • being rejected
    • being ignored
    • breakup of a relationship
    • Violence in the news
    • physical illness or injury.
    • Financial Concerns


    Being able to identify potential triggers prior to the exam will reduce the likelihood of experiencing symptoms during the test.

  3. Socialize: A proven technique for reducing the intensity of anxiety attacks is spending time with close friends and family. Emotional and practical support provided by social groups will help you feel confident.Spending time with loved ones may also aid in distracting your mind from negative and recurring thoughts leading up to the exam.
  4. Relaxation Techniques: It could be necessary for you to actively carry out relaxation techniques before your test, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises.This should assist in regulating heartbeat, respiratory rate, and perspiration while calming the mind and easing the body.
  5. Distract Yourself: Trying new and challenging activities outside of your comfort zone may help reduce stress and anxiety.Switching up the neuropathways in your brain and doing something outside of your normal routine could encourage long-term anxiety management.
  6. Exercise: Consider taking some kind of moderately strenuous exercise, like a brisk walk or run, on the day of your exam. Regular exercise can decrease pre-exam stress and anxiety.


On the day of your exam, avoid anything that could trigger your anxiety. Some examples are:

  1. Don’t skip meals: eating habits can contribute to your anxiety both directly and indirectly. Failure to keep food timings can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels, making you feel jittery and causing anxiety. Maintaining a proper schedule and diet is important for various reasons, such as energy and regulating moods.
  2. Take any prescribed medications: Skipping prescribed medications for your anxiety or any other health concern could lead to unanticipated anxiety symptoms.
  3. Avoid stimulants: caffeine, nicotine, and other stimulants can increase anxiety and interfere with the test results. It’s best to avoid them for at least 24 hours before the test.
  4. Stay hydrated: Dehydration can cause physical symptoms similar to anxiety, so it’s important to drink plenty of water before the test.
  5. Communicate with the examiner: Let the examiner know if you’re feeling anxious or uncomfortable. They may be able to offer reassurance or take steps to make you more comfortable.


Tips for communicating with the examiner during the test to help manage your anxiety

A polygraph examination screen and an examinee

  1. Stay calm and focused: Try to stay calm and focused during the test, even if you’re feeling anxious. Take deep breaths and try to relax your muscles to help you feel more at ease.
  2. Avoid fidgeting or nervous movements: Try to avoid fidgeting, tapping your feet, or other nervous movements during the test.
  3. Speak clearly and at a moderate pace: Speak clearly and at a moderate pace when answering questions.
  4. Ask for clarification if needed: If you do not understand a question, ask the examiner to clarify it. Do not guess or assume what the question means as this can result in false positives.
  5. Maintain eye contact: Maintaining eye contact with the examiner can help establish trust and confidence and can also help you feel more in control.
  6. Ask for breaks if needed: If you feel overwhelmed or need a break, don’t hesitate to ask the examiner for a break. Taking a few minutes to calm down can help you feel more relaxed and better able to handle the test.


Recognizing Anxiety Signs and Symptoms

While knowing how to manage anxiety is important, it is also important to understand what the symptoms could look like before and during the exam. Some symptoms include:

  • Overly Sweating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • The feeling of choking
  • Chest pain
  • Shaking
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • tingling or numbness
  • elevated heart rate



Approaching a polygraph test can be nerve-racking for anyone. For those who have been diagnosed with or have everyday anxiety symptoms, the test might induce uncomfortable feelings.

Anxiety can undeniably affect your polygraph test, and you should be aware of your triggers and well-equipped with coping mechanisms and stress management techniques to avoid false-positive or inconclusive results.

If you feel the need to talk with an expert regarding anxiety management or the effects of anxiety on your polygraph, the Axeligence Team is well-equipped to provide you with professional assistance.

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