Serotonin (also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT)) is a neurotransmitter that has an essential role in the regulation of emotion. However, the precise circuits have not yet been defined through which aversive states are orchestrated by 5-HT. Here we show that 5-HT from the dorsal raphe nucleus (5-HT(DRN)) enhances fear and anxiety and activates a subpopulation of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) neurons in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (CRF(BNST)) in mice. Specifically, 5-HT(DRN) projections to the BNST, via actions at 5-HT2C receptors (5-HT2CRs), engage a CRF(BNST) inhibitory microcircuit that silences anxiolytic BNST outputs to the ventral tegmental area and lateral hypothalamus. Furthermore, we demonstrate that this CRF(BNST) inhibitory circuit underlies aversive behaviour following acute exposure to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). This early aversive effect is mediated via the corticotrophin-releasing factor type 1 receptor (CRF1R, also known as CRHR1), given that CRF1R antagonism is sufficient to prevent acute SSRI-induced enhancements in aversive learning. These results reveal an essential 5-HT(DRN)→CRF(BNST) circuit governing fear and anxiety, and provide a potential mechanistic explanation for the clinical observation of early adverse events to SSRI treatment in some patients with anxiety disorders.