Relief is the emotion people feel when a strain is lessened or stops.

When a potentially negative event is being considered but then perceived as no longer a threat, relief follows the preparatory emotions of surprise, astonishment and shock. Whilst considering negative events, these preparatory emotions introduce varying degrees of stress into the individual. Momentarily people may become scared, fearful, horrified or terrified and then tension is released as relief as the threat is recognised as false.
The release of negative emotions typically induces a notable “sigh of relief”, from exhaling the air that has just been instinctively inhaled and held by one of the preparatory emotions (see Astonishment). This is also true for the corresponding slump in posture and relaxation of the instinctively tense neck and torso regions. Together these reactions of the head dipping, shoulders slumping and exhalation of air as a sigh of relief are the actions that are most associated with an expression of relief.
Nevertheless, stress can relate to events whose perceived position is further into the future. If a taxing endeavour is perceived to be in the future, people will subconsciously orientate their disposition to be ready for when the event is anticipated to happen, especially feared events.1 Intense emotions cause attention to narrow and focus, with a sense of urgency, onto the eliciting event.2 Emotions also progressively assume control over behaviour at higher levels of intensity.3 These aspects are brought into action as emotions intensify in relation to how close the event is (both temporal and spatial proximity affect the orientating response), and negative events outrank positive events for priority of dispositions.4

Future events that people are only partially conscious of, but anticipate, can cause an increasing state of alertness. Changes in psychological information processing styles, neuro-biological releases of hormones, and physiological tenseness orientate people’s dispositions to the anticipated event. Conscious and subconscious perceptions of how close the event is to materialising determine the time when people’s dispositions begin to change in preparation for it. Neuro-biological systems, such as the amygdala and its numerous associative systems, are activated and maintained relevant to people’s anxieties.5 By reorienting people’s dispositions in preparation for an anticipated event, these systems and subsystems can tax current unrelated behaviours. In this process, physiological responses are activated by and then biassed towards the perceived event – intensity of an anticipated event outweighs the probability of it occurring.6 If people hear news that an anticipated negative event will not be happening and they feel an instinctive relief, it’s partially because of a release of subconsciously organised systems that have been preparing for the event.
Relief can relate to any form of stress, anxiety, failure, jealousy, envy, injury, or any negative tension people are experiencing or expecting to experience. If people have an excessive work load that is causing them stress and anxiety, they will experience relief if their work load is suddenly lightened. Relief describes the mental, emotional and physical experience of relaxation after feeling tense.
Relief is the sudden withdrawal of negative experience, and as such it’s not pleasure. Whereas relief indicates a negative thing that has lessened, pleasure indicates things that are nourishing, especially regarding the body’s state. Nevertheless, the release of tension and effort that were being spent on maintaining a taxing vigilant disposition can be used for positive purposes once they are released, so pleasure is highly associated with relief. Pleasure can even be associated with obtaining an agent that creates relief.

Positive emotions are always associated with a release of tension. Negative emotions cause thinking to become more analytically effortful (searching) and focused on a specific problem. Positive emotions cause thinking to rely more on current knowledge bases (instincts, memory and learnt information) with an inclusive thinking style which uses more categories, so flexibility and creativity are increased whilst using less effort.7
Accumulating evidence is showing that negative emotions are biassed towards right-hemisphere functioning and positive emotions are biassed towards the left-hemisphere.8 A theoretical base that sits well with the homeostatic or allostatic suggestion that negative emotions aid the accomplishment of a goal, and when that goal is achieved, a positive emotion is experienced. Therefore, as the switch from negative to positive emotion happens – a shift from right-hemisphere effortful thinking to left-hemisphere relaxed thinking, the right side’s load is reduced, so it can recharge. Thus relief is implicitly coupled to positive emotions as well as a reduction in negative tension.


Old French. Relief = alleviation of distress, ease, assistance.

1. Ease or alleviation given to or received by a person through the removal or lessening of some cause of distress or anxiety; deliverance from what is burdensome or exhausting to the mind; mental relaxation; hence also, entertainment, sport.

2. Ease from, or lessening of, physical pain or discomfort.

3. An agreeable change of object to the mind or one of the senses, esp. that of sight.