Emotional Valence vs. Arousal: Two-Dimensional Model for Emotions


The two-dimensional model of emotions is a simple but helpful way to classify your emotions and better understand them. It categorizes emotions based on their degree of “valence” and “arousal.”

There are many different dimensions to our emotional world.

While there are countless ways to breakdown and classify emotions, one helpful model that is well-known in psychology is the two-dimensional model of emotions.

It’s a simple model but it provides a useful framework for analyzing your emotions and the potential function they serve in your life.

In the two-dimensional model of emotions, emotions are seen in terms of two factors:

  • Valence: the intrinsic attractiveness of an emotion (“feeling good” vs. “feeling bad,” or “positive” vs. negative”).
  • Arousal: the level of activation in the nervous system (“feeling energetic” vs. “feeling lethargic,” or “wakefulness” vs. “sleepiness”)

Every emotion can be classified based on its degree of valence and arousal.

On the valence dimension, emotions are typically described as “positive” or “negative” – this refers to the overall tone behind an emotion. For example, we typically want to experience “positive emotions” such as joy, excitement, or contentment; while we typically don’t want to experience “negative emotions” such as fear, sadness, or guilt.

Keep in mind, “valence” describes the subjective experience of that emotion, but it’s not a judgment of that emotion in-itself.

While negative emotions generally “feel bad,” that doesn’t mean they are always bad – and while positive emotions generally “feel good,” that doesn’t mean they are always good. This is an essential insight behind learning emotional intelligence.

On the arousal dimension, emotions are typically viewed as “energizing” or “lethargic.” For example, fear and anger can be seen as negative emotions, but they are also energizing emotions because they activate your nervous system and motivate you to take action. In the opposite way, relaxation and contentment are seen as positive emotions, but they also tend to be lethargic emotions that cause you to sit back and not take action.

Just as with the “valence” dimension, the “arousal” dimension describes the subjective experience of an emotion – it’s in no way a judgment of that emotion.

Let’s now take a closer look at how other emotions fit into this two-dimensional model.

Emotional Valence vs. Arousal: Two-Dimensional Model

Here’s how different emotions fit into this model. Each of the 4 sections represents a certain type of emotional experience (although each emotion has its unique flavor to it).

As you can see, emotions that are both high in valence and arousal include “astonishment,” “excitement,” “happy” and “delighted.” These are all emotions that not only feel good, but also energize us and make us feel alive.

Emotions that are both low in valence and arousal include “sad,” “miserable,” “gloomy,” and “depressed.” These are all emotions that not only feel bad, but also make us not want to do anything (which can probably make them that much more self-fulfilling).

In truth, no specific emotional experience is “good” or “bad,” what matters is the context behind that emotion, how you interpret it, and how you choose to respond to it.

I believe that knowledge of the two-dimensional model can help you respond to your emotions in a smarter and healthier way, because they often reveal the underlying function or purpose behind that emotion.

Helpful Guidelines Based on the Two-Dimensional Model

Here’s a simple guideline for how to respond to each of the 4 categories of emotions.

While every emotion is unique and requires its own response, this breakdown can give you some direction and insight into how to respond to certain types of emotions.

Here they are:

  • Fear, Anxiety, Anger (Low Valence, High Arousal): This is often a sign that you should channel that emotion in a constructive way through some type of action (exercising, conversation, writing, creative hobbies, going for a walk, etc.) When these highly energized negative emotions aren’t channeled in a healthy way, they are susceptible to build up and eventually spillover into some type of destructive action (such as lashing out at someone when we are angry, or running away from a situation when we are afraid, or engaging in self-sabotage behaviors when we are anxious). A good “rule of thumb” is that if an emotion is both negative AND energizing, it’s usually trying to motivate you toward some positive and productive action. One of my favorite examples of this is reframing anxiety as motivation.
  • Sad, Gloomy, Miserable, Depressed (Low Valence, Low Arousal): This is often a sign that you need to be patient with yourself and start with a super small change to help reverse the flow of the emotion. This is due to the fact that these low-energized negative emotions can easily become self-fulfilling – they demotivate you and make you want to do nothing but lie down, which only leads to them continuing to fester and linger (I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say, “I’m depressed because I don’t exercise, and I don’t exercise because I’m depressed.”) Identify one super easy change you can make TODAY to gain positive momentum (such as taking a minute to reflect on what you’re grateful for, doing a 5 minute workout or mindful stretching, or writing down your thoughts). The opposite action technique can be helpful for these types of emotions, because your goal is often to do something counter-intuitive to reverse the self-fulfilling cycle. Don’t want to go outside? Maybe some sun and nature is exactly what you need. Don’t want to see anyone? Maybe you should reach out to someone to talk to. Don’t want to exercise? Get down and give me 20 right now! (I know these things are easier said than done, but the more inertia there is the smaller you need to think to get the energy moving in the right direction).
  • Content, Relaxed, Calm (High Valence, Low Arousal): Generally we don’t feel the need to change these positive emotions since they both feel good and calm our nervous system. The only caveat is if these emotions are in excess, they may demotivate us or cause us to slack on our responsibilities and goals in life (“I’m not going to go to work, I just want to chill!”) Trying to be completely calm and content 24/7 is often an unrealistic goal, and even if we could achieve it we wouldn’t necessary want to because it would often end up interfering with our larger goals and values in life. If you find yourself struggling with these lethargic emotions, consider getting an accountability partner or using an app to measure your progress to help kick your butt into gear when it comes to habits you’re procrastinating on.
  • Excitement, Happiness, Aroused (High Valence, High Arousal): Again, we don’t generally feel the need to change positive emotions, but the high arousal ones definitely come with a caveat as well. Since these positive emotions are more energizing and motivating, they can also occasionally lead to risky decisions that can end up hurting us more in the long-term; even too much optimism can blind us – if we ignore the realities of a situation, we may end up doing some stupid or foolish things. “Excitement” and “aroused” (while positive emotions) can sometimes fuel destructive habits or unhealthy thrill-seeking through sex, drugs, gambling, or alcohol. If you have trouble managing excessively high positive emotions, it’s probably a good idea to teach yourself some relaxation techniques such as a 100 Breaths Meditation or Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This will give you more control over your nervous system overall, and help to calm down those “high arousal” states.

These are rough guidelines, but hopefully they give you some idea of the different ways you can respond to different emotional states.

The first step is to identify which category of emotions you tend to struggle with the most. Then devise a better plan for how you can respond to those emotions in the moment, without letting them takeover.

Overall the two dimensional model of emotions is a very simple but helpful framework for analyzing our emotional world and learning how to better navigate it.

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