This question is indirectly related to [another question in SE][1]: "Is "Emotional Pain Addiction" real?".


Is it possible to not recognize an emotion as unpleasant when it is unpleasant?

I think this question is justified given that if people neglect that there is a potentiality not to recognize an unpleasant emotion as unpleasant, they could persist in this emotional state.

  • Stress

It seems to me stress is one of those emotions. It has various levels of intensity, and we know that it can be helpful when the intensity does not exceed a threshold (and so could be appraised as potentially positive), it has an exciting valence, and makes you more focused.

And yet (high) stress is unpleasant because it makes respiration difficult, gives a sensation of lump in throat, of bit of a knot in the stomach, makes the muscles tensed, the "focused" aspect can turn one to be less aware (of oneself's feelings and thoughts, of others, of features in the environment), etc.

  • Anger

Would say another example is anger. Anger has a positive dimension which is confidence, and yet at the same time a negative dimension which is unpleasantness.

  • Excitation

Another example is excitation, especially when it is disconnected to any event, but related to an enduring feeling of arousal (so more like a mood), because it gives you a sense of control and novelty, while at the same time can be painful because it makes feel restless and rash, both states which have usually a bad impact on interrelations, which then loop back negatively on well-being and self-confidence.

  • $\begingroup$ Related: psychology.stackexchange.com/q/29526/7604 $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 6:58
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers The author of the response states "Suffering from Alexithymia, you may know how you feel, but not how to describe it"; it is not really what my questions discusses about $\endgroup$
    – Starckman
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't say your question was the same. I'm saying they relate to each other. It is so if anyone would be interested in similar questions, they could easily go to one. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers I edited my question $\endgroup$
    – Starckman
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 0:56
  • $\begingroup$ "I think this question is justified given that if people neglect that there is a potentiality not to recognize an unpleasant emotion as unpleasant, they could persist in this emotional state." - not sure about this last part so didn't address it in the answer. Emotional episodes are time-limited so there's not a persistence, just coming back to negative experience. You might be interested in the idea of emotional awareness more generally... or the idea of rumination $\endgroup$
    – pep
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 21:52

2 Answers 2


Yes, but also maybe not. I think the answer depends on how one defines unpleasantness. If one defines the quality of unpleasantness as the subjective feeling of unpleasantness, then the only way for an emotion to "be" unpleasant is for one to experience it as such. If you define unpleasantness by the subjective emotional experience that is elicited among people on average, then there could be situations (either external circumstances or bodily responses) which many/most people find to be unpleasant, but not always. Stress is a good example because the explanation might be more complicated when thinking about other emotions. For an example, think about a competitive athlete - many people might appraise the emotions elicited by a competitive situation to be unpleasant, but others would not. Then, you could also think about the stakes involved in an athletic performance. Even among competitive athletes, there's probably a good amount of variability in when/how much stress is appraised as pleasant or unpleasant. However, another caveat is that bodily responses can differ based on the appraisals. If there's a potential stressor, some people could appraise it as a challenge (i.e., something I can handle) while other people appraise it as a threat (i.e., something I can't handle) and they could display different patterns of physiological response. Seery (2011) is a review that might be helpful. Also feel free to follow up in comments if this doesn't answer the question and I can try to explain or elaborate as would be helpful.

Seery, M. D. (2011). Challenge or threat? Cardiovascular indexes of resilience and vulnerability to potential stress in humans. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(7), 1603-1610.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for this high quality answer. I grasp your point about the influence of different appraisals. Stress is a very undetermined emotion, in the sense that its effects can greatly vary based on many different factors. Maybe because it is a very primitive emotion? You can do a lot of different things with a rock (provided that you have the tools), but a more developped object like a television (or love, or say, nostalgia, in the realm of emotion) is much more determined (in the realm of emotion: in their scope of what kind of behaviors and thoughts these emotions are associated to) $\endgroup$
    – Starckman
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 5:59
  • $\begingroup$ Feel that some emotions can act like a drug (see this other question psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/28239/…). Drug give you the impression it is pleasant, while it is not. Well, it is and it is not, at the same time. That is one aspect of drug, two contradictory valences, which might explain their nature of trap. Anger and high stress, as described in my question, exhibit the same problem. Pleasant and unpleasant at the same time. $\endgroup$
    – Starckman
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 6:14
  • $\begingroup$ And maybe some people in those states would focus on one of those aspects (the pleasant dimension: certainty, or excitement, etc.), rather than the other (arousal, unpleasantness). It is different from appraisal theory though, since appraisal theory is directed to the situation that elicited the stressor, more than the internal bodily situation $\endgroup$
    – Starckman
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 6:35
  • $\begingroup$ The other way those emotions could be similar to drug, is that similarly they have a emotion-cognition-awareness blurring effect, but about the exact underlying mechanisms, I am not sure psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/28239/… $\endgroup$
    – Starckman
    Commented Apr 29, 2023 at 6:50

Some hypotheses below:

  • The emotion is not adapted to the situation

It is possible that the unpleasant feeling might come from the perception that the emotion is not adapted to the situation.

The three examples given (stress, anger and excitation) have positive dimensions; however, if these emotions are experienced at the wrong intensity, in the wrong place and at the wrong moment, it is possible that it may elicit negative reactions from the environment, which in turn would elicit negative feelings.

For instance, the person might experience an emotion of anger, which gives a sense of control (that is pleasant), in a situation where the person doesn't really in fact have any control over, something which could translate through different cues that the person might nevertheless subconsciously feel, and give them negative feelings, to which is added the negative feeling felt from this discrepancy (see subsection below on emotional intelligence).

  • These emotions may act like drugs

Something that to me intuitively would make possible to not recognize an emotion as unpleasant is that, when we take the three examples (high stress, anger, and excitement) above: (1) they have contradictory valences, which can act like a trap (2) they are related to high arousal and feelings of control, which can be addictive (I suppose). And so (1) and (2) would prevent from tentatively regulating these emotions.

Other factors:

  • Psychological: Emotional intelligence

Psychological abilities and traits such as emotional intelligence could be a factor in this phenomenon.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is most often defined as the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions. People with high emotional intelligence can recognize their own emotions and those of others, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, and adjust emotions to adapt to environments.1


There are evidence that neuroticism makes people less able to recognize negative emotions.

However, previous studies suggest that highly neurotic individuals tend to have lower EI. For example, Petrides et al. (2010) found that neuroticism was the only negative, but the strongest, predictor of trait EI among Big Five personality dimensions. This suggests that strong negative emotionality may hinder neurotic individuals from accurately perceiving emotions of others and of themselves, and regulating emotions in social interactions (Newby et al., 2017)

(Guo et al. 2018)

  • Biological: Caffeine

Maybe the concomitant role of stimulants such as caffeine in the maintenance and the creation of these emotions should not be discarded.

Caffeine is well absorbed by the body, and the short-term effects are usually experienced between 5 and 30 minutes after having it. These effects can include increased breathing and heart rate, and increased mental alertness and physical energy.


The stimulating effects of caffeine cause alterness right away. It can also temporarily relieve drowsiness and fatigue. Too much caffeine can overstimulate the brain, leading to confusion.


This SE question is related.


Guo, Q., Sun, P., & Li, L. (2018). Why neurotic individuals are less prosocial? A multiple mediation analysis regarding related mechanisms. Personality and Individual Differences, 128, 55-61.


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