Negative Affect

Negative Affect. Psychology Fanatic article heading image

We experience a wide range of feelings that can have different impacts on us. These feelings can range from positive to negative, and each has its own unique effect on our emotions and well-being. While some feelings may bring a sense of calm and tranquility, others may activate and stimulate us.

Negative affect is a term used to describe a specific category of feelings that are commonly associated with emotional distress. It encompasses a range of emotions that can cause discomfort and unease. These negative feelings can manifest as sadness, anxiety, anger, frustration, or any other form of emotional distress.

Key Definition:

Negative Affect is the subjective experience of discomforting emotional states. We consider experiencing emotions such as anxiety, depression, stress, sadness, worry, guilt, shame, anger, and envy as negative affect.

Causes of Negative Affect

Negative affect is a biologically adaptive response to stress encountered in the environment. Our conscious experience of negative emotions may be tied to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. All the biological changes such as increased heart rate, rising blood pressure, and tightening muscles, create a feeling affect, which from past experience we most likely associate with a threat.

Once these feelings break though to consciousness, we interpret the feeling as an emotion (anger, fear, frustration, etc…). Usually, the context surrounding the activation of the sympathetic nervous system is instrumental in defining the emotion. Sometimes, we can’t find an immediate cause, so we unconsciously target something in the environment. This is known as affective realism.

For example, we may unintentionally cut someone off on the freeway. As they pass, they yell at us and point a shiny silver object at us. Our bodies perceive the danger, the sympathetic nervous system readies muscles and organs to fight or flee. We are experiencing negative affect. Perhaps, fear at first, followed by anger.

Loss and Negative Emotions

When we lose someone we love, our bodies react, altering the levels of stress-related opioids in the brain and increasing levels of inflammatory proteins in the blood (2016). These changes, just like the activation of the sympathetic nervous system creates a feeling affect that we translate into an emotion once it enters consciousness. Again, based on surrounding circumstances, we interpret the feeling affect. “I am sad.”

T. Franklin Murphy explains that “feeling affects draw conscious attention to the feeling incident and we interpret the feeling, giving emotion labels that categorize and characterize the experience with greater granularity” (2021). Negative affect is caused by our perception of outside events. Our perception is influenced by interpretation of observation strongly biased from past histories, and level of arousal which is determined by the significance of the threat and our biological makeups. 

Feeling affects are experienced in connection to both the valence and level of arousal, and consciously experienced as pleasant or unpleasant, based on our interpretation of the feeling incident. 

Trait  Negative Affect

“Trait negative affect represents the tendency to experience these negative mood states” (2012). A person that experiences high levels of negative affect may, perhaps, have a biological propensity to be quickly aroused by perceived threats. Some research suggests that this may be cause by a negative explanatory style, also known as attribution style. 

Murphy describes the negative attribution style as “a pessimistic explanatory style, explaining negative events as permanent, pervasive and personalized and positive events as passing, limited in scope and generalized” (2022).

High levels of Negative Affect Associated with Depression

Individuals suffering from depression typically experience abnormal patterns of frequent and lingering emotional disturbances. “Depressive symptomatology is centrally characterized by increased levels of negative affect combined with decreased levels of positive affect” (2018).

Bipolarity of  Negative and Positive Affect

Traditionally, we view negative and positive affect states on opposite poles. Indeed, this view is cognitively reasonable. When we are in a bad mood, we have no positive affect; and when we are in a good mood, we have no negative affect. However, some research over the last several decades challenge this view, suggesting that both positive and negative emotions operate independent of each other.

In 1995, the National Advisor Mental Health Council advised, “while one would ordinarily think that positive and negative emotions are opposites, apparently this is not the case…” (Russell & Carroll, 1999). Whether positive and negative emotions act independently or as bipolar opposites continues to be a matter of debate.

Perhaps, how positive and negative emotions interrelate with each other differs.

For instance, some empirical evidence suggests that people “differ in the extent to which they experience positive and negative affect rather independently or as bipolar opposites” (2018). Dejonckheere and colleagues examined how this difference in whether an individual experienced positive and negative independently or as polar opposites correlated with emotional well-being and depressive mood states.

Their findings support the theory that depressive symptomology includes “the experience of positive affect and negative affect becoming more mutually exclusive, with negative feelings implying a lack of positive feelings and vice versa, reflected in a more negative relation between the two” (2018).

Emotional Regulation

Research has discovered a link between persistent and intense negative emotions and the tendency to use maladaptive, avoidant coping strategies to regulate the negative affect (Miller, 2021).

Roy Baumeister explains the link between negative affect and adverse outcomes by positing that “one’s proneness to experiencing negative affect increases one’s favoring of immediate and perhaps maladaptive responses to alleviate negative mood states (p. 1318).

A Few Final Words By Flourishing Life Society

The complexity of mood disorders leaves plenty of room for more research. We know for certain that negative affect plays an important role, whether as a symptom, a cause, or a combination of the two is still debated. Healthy coping strategies, supporting environments, and life choices that lighten stress all may lessen the negative feeling experiences and improve our lives.


Brady, Krissy (2016). This What Sadness Does to Your Body. Prevention. Published 2-23-2016. Accessed 9-22-2022.

Dejonckheere, E., Mestdagh, M., Houben, M., Erbas, Y., Pe, M., Koval, P., Brose, A., Bastian, B., & Kuppens, P. (2018). The Bipolarity of Affect and Depressive Symptoms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(2), 323-341.

Miller, D., Vachon, D., & Aalsma, M. (2012). Negative Affect and Emotion Dysregulation. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39(10), 1316-1327.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021) Emotional Differentiation. Psychology Fanatic. Published 9-23-2021. Accessed 9-22-2022

Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Negative Attribution Style. Psychology Fanatic. Published 4-28-2022. Accessed 9-22-2022.

Russell, J., & Carroll, J. (1999). On the Bipolarity of Positive and Negative Affect. Psychological Bulletin, 125(1), 3-30.

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