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Emotional Arousal


Explanations > Emotions > Emotional Arousal

Arousal is... | Physiological arousal | Becoming aroused | Being aroused | So what


Whilst we feel emotions on an ongoing basis, we sometimes enter a state of arousal, in which our bodies experience heightened physiological activity and extremes of emotion. This can be both powerful and dangerous, both for ourselves and for others.

States of arousal can be positive and negative and include fear, anger, curiosity and love, which are felt with an overpowering intensity that drives us to act, often in an unthinking way.

Arousal is...

Arousal is a state of heightened activity in both our mind and body that makes us more alert.

Arousal acts along a spectrum from low to high. You can be slightly aroused and you can be extremely highly aroused.

Arousal is the result of stimulation. When we are stimulated appropriately, then we become aroused. With greater stimulation, we become more aroused.

Arousal is a fundamental human need. In particular when other basic needs for safety and social position are adequate, we start looking for more excitement. What do people who have everything seek? 'Sex, drugs and rock and roll' is a common description that embodies arousal.

Arousal can be both positive and negative in experience, for example in excitement or fear. A lack of arousal can also be positive or negative, for example in relaxation or boredom.

Physiological arousal

Arousal starts in the brain, where the Reticular Activation System connects the primitive brain stem and the cortex and affects sleeping-waking transitions. In arousal, it acting to increase our wakefulness and consequent alertness and attention. In arousal caused by a threat, the fight-or-flight reaction is triggered.

The endocrine system stimulates various glands, in particular adrenaline, which increases oxygen and glucose flow, dilates the pupils (so you can see better) and suppresses non-urgent systems such as digestion and the immune system.

Arousal is spread through the Sympathetic Nervous System, with effects such as increasing the heart rate and breathing to enable physical action and perspiration to cool the body. It also has specific actions such as stimulating sexual arousal.

Becoming aroused

Emotional arousal is a process, which means it happens as a sequence over time. Understanding this is a step towards being able to manage the process.

Arousal triggers

Arousal often happens through a trigger, which appears through one of our senses. Thus, for example, arousal can happen through:

  • Touch: A punch, kiss or caress
  • Vision: Seeing something shocking or desirable
  • Hearing: A sudden noise or somebody saying something
  • Smell: An evocative odour that triggers powerful memories
  • Taste: Of wonderful or disgusting food

The process of arousal

Arousal typically happens when the body releases chemicals into the brain that act to stimulate emotions, reduce cortical functioning and hence conscious control, and create physical agitation and 'readiness for action'.

Arousing emotions

Emotions can be classified in terms of how arousing or not they are. Here are some:


Arousing emotions Calming emotions
joy, happiness, anger, frustration, hate, excitement contentment, sadness, confusion, shame, guilt, satisfaction


Arousal is sometimes talked of with the metaphor of heat, reflecting the energy created, with arousing emotions described as 'hot' or 'warm; and calmer emotions as 'cold' or 'cool'.

Higher arousal tends to make people want to talk and communicate more. Hence people talk more when they are joyful and less when they are just contented.

Being aroused

The effect of arousal

In situations of negative stress, we enter the fight-or-flight state, when primitive responses designed to keep us alive are kicked into motion.

In sexual arousal, our bodies prepare themselves for sexual intercourse and our brains go into overdrive in a state of intense desire for completion of this most basic of acts.

In other states of stimulation, people report feelings of 'being more alive', as senses become more acute and the skin prickles in excitement.

The desirability of arousal

We all have a need for arousal at some level and being aroused is a pleasurable state that plays to basic needs for stimulation.

Even negative states such as fear and anger have their benefits. Angry people report feeling all-powerful, perhaps harking back to neonatal states of infantile omnipotence.

Fearful people also may access early memories of being subsequently comforted. Fear is also a common factor in many hobbies, especially extreme sports, where people do things deliberately to become aroused, from skiing to watching horror movies.

In states of depression, the opposite occurs and suffers may be unable to feel any sense of arousal, interest and engagement with the world.

So what?

By understanding the process by which people become aroused, you can gain control of whether and how arousal happens. The first place to start with this is yourself. If you become emotionally aroused, then you are losing some control. This is often not a good thing, so learning self-control can be a critical skill.

The next step is to understand how others become aroused and learning to control that process, from activating triggers to managing emotional states.

See also

The Need for Arousal, Hot and Cold Emotions, Stress, Three Types of Arousal, Arousal Personality Types, The Purpose of Art, Arousal Conflict


J. Berger. Arousal Increases Social Transmission of Information. Psychological Science, 2011; DOI: 10.1177/0956797611413294


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