Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Moodiness: Understanding the Major Negative Emotions

The negative emotions (ironically) enhance quality of life and survival.

Key points

  • Three primary negative emotions (anxiety, depression, hostility) are acquired, but the fourth, fear, is evolutionary.
  • A mood is a transient emotional state, but it affects mental health and functioning if chronic and intense.
  • Anxiety is classically conditioned and instrumentally avoided linking mind, brain, and culture. This is the well-known "2-factor" learning model.
  • The prior frequency of rehearsal simulations (practices, over-learning) lowers anxiety and fear to a manageable real-time level.

The existence of the emotions facilitates self-regulation, and although uncomfortable to experience, are necessary for quality of life and survival.

A utopia is a world to your liking that reduces the need for variation in emotions. A dystopia is just the opposite: always in fear, depressed, agitated. However, many practical reasons prevent total personal freedom and external control, making experiencing these emotions just a fact of life.

States versus traits

Think of the negative emotions as states within more prominent, more encompassing traits. For example, a usually easygoing person can be hostile. An upbeat person can be down in the dumps. A curious person might feel anxious to try something new. Over time, the triggers and cause and effect accumulate to "knowing better" what to approach or avoid.

Wisdom becomes the name of such insights on how to best pursue a meaningful, purposeful life. What are these (negative) moods we must experience to mature?

An overview of mood states

Anxiety (A) is being afraid, frightened, shaky, and tense. Depression (D) is feeling alone, forlorn, lost, and miserable. Hostility (H) is feeling annoyed, cross, disagreeable. Fear (F) is autonomic arousal seeking to escape the object or situation. It is fight or flight.

The first three negative emotions (A, D, H) are acquired. Fear is innate and evolutionary for the survival of the species. These primary negative emotions fluctuate around a more stable personality.

Source: mohamed mahmoud hassan/Public Domain Pictures
Moodiness often has clear triggers.
Source: mohamed mahmoud hassan/Public Domain Pictures

We all have triggers for A, D, H, and F

Everyone has a "trigger" to generate A, D, H, or F. This trigger forms identity and others' perception of us. We keep mood states close to our chest. In ordinary social greetings such as “How are you doing?” your answer is based on trait and not state—“Fine”—even though at that exact moment you are depressed. You don't say, "I am depressed" in polite conversation. The question is a manner to a situation.

These acquired negative emotions, including sensation seeking—a biological trait linking acquired anxiety and evolutionary fear—can be empirically measured using psychometric scales such as the MAACL-R (Multiple Affect Adjective Checklist).

Psychologists can assign a number to a feeling to help them help you. In my practice, I measure moods, for example, using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) to screen for reactive and endogenous depression.

The role of learning in moods

Positive and negative changes are acquired through classical and instrumental learning––2-factor theory––but the various mental states become intertwined with the other negative (and positive) emotions making a negative mood often transient. If the adverse condition persists and intensifies, there is abnormal psychology if you can't focus or function.

If you have good news, all becomes suddenly well, and the opposite is the case.

Let's now look under the hood at each of these mental states and how they interact.


The experience of “being anxious” is aversive. We act differently to reduce its intensity or self-medicate (alcohol, grass, pills) or medicate (prescribed psychotropic medications) to hopefully reduce or eradicate the bad mood.

The problem is “a bad mood” can stimulate the creative imagination, meaning artists create anxiety to reduce anxiety through their art. I speculate that Pablo Picasso did not create “Guernica” about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War in a good mood.

If anxiety goes untreated, it generates a phobia or an active avoidance response as a coping to the “distraction.” To reduce anxiety, this avoidance and escape rewarding ignore the stressors and just make it worse. This is why in classical psychopathology, "neuroticism" is self-defeating.

Phobias and reward schedules

A phobia, an anxiety disorder, is classically conditioned and instrumentally avoided by the Skinnerian four reward schedules: Fixed interval, variable interval, fixed ratio, and variable ratio.

A variable ratio phobia is highly resistant to extinction. A good example is a slot machine at a casino. The rewards payout "every once in a while," so you remain seated to gamble.

The slots are the highest money maker for the casino. A fixed interval reward is a bi-monthly paycheck.

Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs seeking high variable ratio rewards and are the basis of capitalism. They avoid (and find boring) a fixed interval reward (called a job). There are risk-takers and high sensation seekers, another mood state.

Phobias and the two-factor model

The “two-factor” learning model was initially advanced by H.O. Mowrer. Fear is classically conditioned and instrumentally avoided linking the mind to the motor cortex.

We do things to reduce anxiety. Whether this choice is licit or illicit is irrelevant, defined by culture, norms, codes of conduct, law, and justice.

A society in formation becomes a society when it assigns a moral and ethical value to some preferences over others, and if universalized, forms a civilization.


Depression is not thinking or doing since there is pessimism as to outcomes culminating in learned helplessness or “no matter what I do, it does not matter.” This mental attitude is dysfunctional (and dangerous) if it culminates in hopelessness and despair.

There are two main types of depression: reactive (situational, acquired) and endogenous (biochemical, genetic). Reactive depression is a disappointment to a real-world event, like not getting admitted to a school or being rejected in love. You shut down. This shutting down or doing less––a withdrawal of thinking and doing––is temporarily adaptive and a measure of future resilience. These feelings happen to everyone sooner or later.

Endogenous depression is more severe and biochemical affecting neurochemistry. The cause and effect are unclear. CBT changes neurochemistry, but psychotropic drugs change thinking in a feedback loop. For example, a depression pill Prozac® prevents serotonin reuptake, meaning more of this neurotransmitter is in your head, rebalancing neurochemistry. Some biological depressions are inherited, especially manic depression, bipolar disorders, sudden, intense mood swings, so knowing your family genetic history matters.

Grieving is not depression

Don’t confuse reactive depression with grieving or the normal sadness after a loss. The five stages of grief are the path back to resilience. To experience mourning is a necessary evil for teaching empathy.


Another emotional state is hostility. Have you ever been mistreated or stuck in a traffic jam? Many new apps are addressing lowering hatred, anger, hate, and other negative mood states. Learning self-control is the key.

We feel hostile when a goal is blocked as a dimension of frustration or if others disagree with us. Hostility can lead to withdrawal or aggressive rage depending upon how you were socialized to cope with disappointment. Domestic violence is a hostile mood state (controlling another to cope with stress).

Hostility preoccupies your thinking more than anxiety, making you a poor parent, spouse, or manager. Hostility also interferes with creative and critical thinking.


Fear is the evolutionary fight-or-flight response. It includes the belief there is an immediate threat. Cognition, being interpretive, makes us more aware of the danger, whether it exists or not, culminating in paranoia or an oversensitivity to people, places, and circumstances.

Animals literally “smell” human fear from the corticosteroids, adrenalin, and cortisol in our skin sweat. It is a proximity danger detector versus a distance receptor-like vision or audition. Politicians use a promise to reduce fear (really pervasive anxiety) to get elected.

Mood modifies genetics, neurochemistry, and sports

A perceived threat is real or imagined, usually acquired through an intense negative experience, but some people are born or inherit a biological need for higher A, D, and H.

Tennis players smashing a racket are modulating their neurochemistry from high arousal hostility to low arousal anxiety. A layman has no idea this is happening, and even the sports commentator's gloated, "He is losing it." Self-regulation is in play and is an individual difference. John McEnroe, after a verbal fight with the chair umpire, would play better. He calmed down. Curiously, for Novak Djokovic, a top tennis player, ranting and smashing do him a disservice, interrupting flow impairing play.

Do I need counseling being so moody?

Duration and intensity define if a negative mood requires professional care. You might need professional counseling if prolonged anxiety leads to angst, intense depression to despair, and prolonged hostility to animosity.


Zuckerman, M., Lubin, B, and Rinck, M. (1983) Construction of New Scales for the Multiple Affect Adjective Check List. Journal of Behavioral Assessment. Vol. 5 No. 2.

Feather, N.T. (1963) Mowrer’s revised two-factor theory and the motive-expectancy value model. Psychological Review 70, (6), 500-515