Photo retrieved from Medical Daily

Table of contents

  1. Definition
  2. Arousal in sexual contexts
  3. Arousal in emotional contexts
  4. The science behind arousal




Arousal refers to the experience of increased physiological activity. This is often accompanied by an increased heart rate, perspiration, and rapid breathing. In some cases, the term arousal is used to specifically refer to sexual feelings and the resulting bodily changes. In essence, arousal is the bodily sensation of feeling energized. A person experiencing high arousal is active and often alert, while a person who experiences low arousal is sluggish, and/or sleepy.

Arousal in sexual contexts

Arousal is most commonly discussed and identified exclusively in terms of sexual activity and stimulation. Sexual arousal, or being “turned on,” can be defined as the combination of cognitive and physical responses to an erotic stimulus, which can be internal or external. One can feel aroused by looking at a picture, touching, being touched, or by one’s thoughts or fantasies. “Arousal includes physiological activation, which is often associated with increased blood flow to the genitals, erection of nipples, vaginal lubrication, swelling of the testes, and pupil dilation.” (Castro) Though arousal is associated closely with sexual situations there are far more ways to be aroused then just sexually (See Below).

Arousal in emotional contexts

The two-factor theory of emotion, states that when people are physiologically aroused, their emotional experience is determined by how they think about the arousal. For example, when graduating from school or getting married a person is likely to experience a heightened level of positive emotional arousal due to the nature of those events. However, an individual can also experience arousal in a negative context like in the case of being physically attacked which may trigger a fight, freeze or flight response which is also a state of emotional arousal. In both cases, the same bodily arousal becomes labeled as two different emotions depending on the social context. Since arousal is a bodily function that targets many different parts of the body and the brain simultaneously an individual can experience sexual and emotional arousal at the same time depending on the situation and context cues.

The science of behind arousal

Arousal exists in day to day contexts that have little to nothing to do with sexual triggers or activity. The arousal theory of motivation breaks down the desire an individual may experience on the life long journey to maintain a stable equilibrium that is unique to each individual. The theory states that “the major reason people are driven to perform any action is to maintain the optimal level of physiological arousal. Arousal is one of the fundamental aspects required for attention and information process. The idea is that an individual’s arousal level must be optimal for efficiency to be at the peak.” (Shrestha) For example, one can be at their maximum focus while taking a test when their arousal level is optimal. However, if they develop an unnecessary level of arousal, they may experience test anxiety or nervousness that hinders their performance. Studies show in nonsexual contexts when an individual’s arousal level is either very high or low, the overall performance level for that task tends to be negatively impacted.

Recommended Reading:

The Science of Sexual Arousal

Early Brain-Body Impact of Emotional Arousal

Positive Arousal Increases Individuals’ Preferences for Risk


Arousal. (n.d.). Retrieved October 8, 2019, from

Benson, Etienne. (2003, April). Sex: The science of sexual arousal. Retrieved October 8, 2019, from

Caba, J. (2015, June 29). Grossing Your Lady Out Will Kill The Mood A Lot Quicker Than Scaring Her. Retrieved October 8, 2019, from

Castro, G. (2014, October 14). Emotion, Brain, & Behavior Laboratory. Retrieved October 8, 2019, from

Shrestha, P. (2019, June 16). Arousal Theory of Motivation. Retrieved October 8, 2019, from

Mya Hampton is a 20-year-old senior at Old Dominion University who loves anything and everything to do with pop culture and the music industry. She is currently working towards obtaining a B.S. in Communication with an emphasis in media studies and a minor in marketing in May of 2020. She has always enjoyed broadening her horizons and learning more about herself and the world around her through traveling, meeting new people and connecting to others through music. This blog is the perfect outlet to push boundaries and openly express her thoughts about gender, sexuality, the body, and beyond.