Negative Affect and Stress

Some people are more prone to bad moods. Here's how to turn around a bad mood and feel less stressed. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Some people are more prone to being in a bad mood, or experiencing what's known as "negative affect." Negative affect is a general factor of stress that covers a broad range of negative or unpleasant mood states, and it can be linked to greater levels of stress. When people experience negative affect, they may be feeling:

  • distressed
  • nervous
  • afraid
  • angry
  • guilty
  • scornful
  • overwhelmed
  • anxious
  • a host of other feelings that can be categorized under the umbrella of "bad mood."

    Who Experiences Negative Affect?

    Negative affect and its converse, positive affect, can both be measured either as "states" (relatively short-lived mood fluctuations), or "traits" (more stable moods that can be seen rather regularly in the same person over time). State negative affect is usually associated with stressors one experiences, and can be shrugged off more easily; trait negative affect is associated with those who naturally seem to be more disagreeable, unhappy, or chronically stressed. Usually, the two are related: if you're someone who usually experiences negative affect ("trait" negative affect), you're more likely to experience negative affect in response to various stressors ("state" negative affect"). More simply put, if you have a habitually more negative mood, things will bother you more, and you may find yourself in a bad mood more often because of it.  So, while we all experience bad moods from time to time, some people experience them more often, or more severely, just as part of their personality.

     Whether you're someone who experiences a little negative affect or a lot, there are things you can do to minimize this, and build greater resilience in your life as well.

    What Contributes To Negative Affect?

    Certain factors tend to increase negative affect. When people feel low level of personal control, for example, they experience greater levels of negative affect.

    Likewise, those who expect their day to be more stressful tend to experience greater levels of negative affect on those days--it becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who feel they experience greater amounts of stress tend to experience more negative affect, as do those who experience more physical discomfort (like general aches and pains, headaches, etc.) on a regular basis. (Note that this may be due to higher levels of stress or pain causing more bad moods or sensitivity to negative life events, or it could be that those who naturally are bothered more by stressful and pain-inducing things in their environment.)

    How To Build Resilience

    What does this mean for you?  If you're someone who experiences regular negative affect, you can actively promote positive affect for yourself by increasing enjoyable experiences in your life, cultivating positive mood states, and more. (Read here about positive affect and stress.)  You can also cope with some of the negative feelings directly (because a presence of positive affect does not necessarily banish negative affect) with some of the following.


    Create Greater Control In Your Life--Or Feel Like You Did
    We feel less stressed by our circumstances when we feel we have choice.  And some of us perceive more choices than others, or we perceive greater choice in different circumstances.  While you can't always increase the level of control you have in life, sometimes you can, and sometimes you can shift your focus and feel a greater level of control by noticing what you can control rather than focusing on what you can't.  Here are strategies for developing an internal locus of control (which can help you feel greater control in various circumstances), create more control for yourself at work, and focus on what you can control right now.

    Exercise Regularly
    Getting regular exercise can lift your mood and build resilience toward stress.  It's important to find types of exercise that you enjoy because this lifts your mood, and it can motivate you to continue working out regularly.  Read more about stress and exercise.

    Process Your Emotions (And Then Move On)
    When you are holding onto anger, resentment, rumination, and other unresolved negative feelings of the past, it can color how you feel in the present.  Learning to process your emotions and move on can help you to let go of unnecessary negative affect so that it doesn't bring down your present and your future.  Here are some strategies to process stressful emotions and let go.

    Try These Strategies For Building Positive Affect
    Negative affect is more than the absence of positive affect, but experiencing greater levels of positive affect can definitely minimize stress levels, and the two are related.  Here are some proven strategies for increasing and expanding your good moods by increasing positive affect.


    Au, Evelyn W. M.;  Locus of control, self-efficacy, and the mediating effect of outcome control: Predicting course-level and global outcomes in an academic context.  Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal, Vol 28(4), Jul, 2015 pp. 425-444.

    Çivitci, Asim. The Moderating Role of Positive and Negative Affect on the Relationship between Perceived Social Support and Stress in College Students. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice. Jun2015, Vol. 15 Issue 3, p565-573.

    Watson, D.  Intraindividual and interindividual analyses of positive and negative affect: Their relation to health complaints, perceived stress, and daily activities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 54(6), Jun, 1988. pp. 1020-1030.  

    Continue Reading