A 4-Step Formula to Ease the Pain of Difficult FeelingsFeelings are not facts. Believing, acting on, and making decisions based solely on your feelings will get you in trouble almost every time. Now, before I totally alienate the whole “Think with your heart” camp, let me explain.

I’m not saying feelings aren’t important and should be ignored. Absolutely not.

Feelings provide vital information and need to be a consideration guiding your behavior and decisions. You’ll want to learn to accept and allow your feelings. Then, try to figure out what’s behind them and what they are telling you. Then, make decisions and go forward acting with conscious intent.

What Are Feelings?

Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of your brain, are mental associations and reactions to emotions, and are subjectively influenced by your personal experiences, beliefs, and memories. A feeling is a mental portrayal of what is going on in your body when you have an emotion and is the byproduct of your brain perceiving and assigning meaning to an emotion. Feelings happen after having an emotion, involve cognitive input – usually subconscious, and cannot be measured precisely.

Antonio D’Amasio, professor of neuroscience at The University of California and author of several books on the subject, explains it as:

Feelings are mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli. (The order of such events is: I am threatened, experience fear, and feel horror.)

What Are Emotions?

Feelings and emotions are two different things. Emotions are lower level responses occurring in the subcortical regions, amygdala, and ventromedial prefrontal cortices of your brain. Brain activity triggers biochemical reactions in your body. At the core of any emotion is a complex series of changes in your body. These changes prepare your body to take action.

Initially, emotions were an evolutionary advantage which helped our species survive by producing quick reactions to threats and rewards in their environments. Emotional reactions are coded in our genes and vary slightly individually and depending on the circumstances. However, they’re universally similar across all humans and even other species.

Emotions precede feelings and are physical and instinctual. They can be objectively measured by blood flow, brain activity, facial micro-expressions, and body language because they’re physical. Feelings cannot.

Emotions, Feelings, and Thoughts

Feelings are generated by emotions and colored by thoughts, memories, and beliefs that have become subconsciously linked with that particular emotion for you. It works the other way around too. For example, just remembering an unpleasant occurrence or thinking about something threatening can trigger an emotional response in your body. While individual emotions are temporary, the feelings they evoke can persist and grow over time, resulting in ongoing conditions, like depression or anxiety.


Because emotions cause subconscious feelings which, in turn, initiate more emotions and thoughts, your life can become a never-ending cycle of painful and confusing emotions. These emotions then produce negative feelings which can result in more negative thoughts and emotions and the cycle continues. You can end up anxious or depressed all the time without ever really knowing why.

 A 4-Step Formula to Ease the Pain of Difficult Feelings

While basic emotions are instinctual and common to all humans, the meanings they take on and the feelings they prompt differ depending on your individual programming and environment, past and present.  A person’s beliefs, temperament, and experiences shape their feelings.  So, feelings vary greatly from person to person and even among situations in the same person.

A Four-Step Plan for Accepting Your Feelings

Your emotions and feelings largely determine how you experience and interact with the world because they are the driving force behind your actions and behaviors. It’s possible that you are still being guided by emotions and the feelings they evoke stemming from beliefs learned in childhood from caretakers, school, and religious institutions, for example, that don’t really fit you anymore. Living life, making decisions, and acting according to out-dated feelings based on your childhood can lead to an unhappy, fear-based life.

Awareness of your feelings and getting your self-reflective brain involved, mindfulness, can help you interrupt this cycle. Brian Tracy, motivational speaker and self-development author, says:

Ninety-five percent of your emotions are determined by how you interpret events to yourself.” 

In his book, The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris offers a four-step formula for working with and through your feelings. The plan asks you to pause and shift your awareness to your observing self and pay attention to feelings and what’s happening in your body. This activates different parts of your brain and calms down the emotional partsRuss calls his process the “Four Steps of Expansion.”

When practicing expansion, you’re not trying to get rid of or alter a feeling. You are trying to accept it and give up any struggle with or resistance you have against it.  The goal is to make peace with a feeling even though you may not like it or want it. You can practice expansion with one specific feeling or in a general manner. Here’s how to do it:

Step One: Observe

Observe the sensations in your body. Take a few seconds and scan yourself head to toe. As you do this, you will probably notice several uncomfortable sensations. Look for the one that bothers you the most. for example, it may be a lump in your throat, a knot in your stomach, or a teary feeling in your eyes. (If your entire body feels uncomfortable, then just pick one area that bothers you the most.) Now, focus your attention on that sensation. Observe it with curiosity, like a scientist.

Step Two: Breathe

Breathe into and around the sensation. Begin with a few deep, slow breaths, making sure you fully empty your lungs as you breathe out. Slow, deep breathing activates your vagus nerve and calms your brain and body.  It won’t get rid of your feelings, but it will provide a center of calm within you. It will hold you steady until the emotional storm passes.  Breathe slowly and deeply and imagine your breath flowing into and around the sensation.

Step Three: Create Space

As your breath flows into and around the feeling, it’s as if you are somehow creating space within your body. You open up and create a space around the sensation, giving it plenty of room to move. (And if it gets bigger, you give it even more space.)

Step Four: Allow

Allow the sensation to just be there, even though you don’t like it or want it.  In other words, “let it be.”  You don’t have to fight with your feelings, make them go away, or do anything with them at all.  Just let them be. Allow them, and don’t give them any more of your attention than necessary. Mindfully observe the feelings and realize they are not facts.

As you practice the expansion technique, either your feelings will change or they won’t. Either is OK. This practice is not about changing your feelings. It’s about becoming aware of and accepting them. Once you do this, they become less troubling and painful for you, and you can guide your behavior and life consciously towards your goals and happiness.

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  1. I find the distinction between emotions and feelings fascinating. They both hold so much power over us unless we take the reins in our hands, with a process like the one outline here. Thank you for this, Debbie. So needed in our world.

  2. Interesting Debbie…for me it’s all about vibrations of energy. And as Sandra said the sway feelings or emotions have over our life and the actions we take is enormous. The Happiness Trap sounds like an interesting read…thanks for sharing. 🙂

  3. Are feeling mental, my heart says no, feeling for me come from the heart and that is about vibes and energy, yes thoughts become things , is this from a headspace or a heart space ? Beliefs I belief we can change when we change out story. Thanks for getting my mind thinking on this xxoo

  4. This site is awesome, the matters aborded here were very very helpfull to me, in my life, to understand things and work on my own traumas and fears and other types of limitations that, unfortunately friends and family and even my own self was, in part, unable to work through certain things, they were very supportive, but not necessarily helpfull, and I don’t have money to pay for payed help, and the free help, until now was unable to really help, you have shown ways of thinking and acting in certain conditions/situations that acctualy helped me, still does, but yet I have a long way to go before I can make a deepbreath and say “I’m content now, things are starting to flow :)”.. very tnks for making this site and for talking on all this subjects there is in here, and for the way you talk about them and explain them… Know that you are doing good for someone in some part of the world, you are helping, and I am indicating this site to people that I think can get good use of this content.. thanks again… the world need more places like this to seek functional knowledge, helpfull knowledge… 🙂

    P.S.: Sorry if there is any mistake in my english, and sorry for the text in the place of a comment haha

    • Ow, by the way, I’ve forgot to comment that I really liked the schema of colors and the “shape” of the site in general, it really helped the reading, at least for me, very “tranquil” the reading for my eyes haha I don’t know how to explain, but very pleasant I think is the word I want 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment. I am glad you find the info on here helpful. I think the free help I received from books and online was probably some of the most valuable and helpful. Keep learning, growing, and trying to change a little every day. You’ll be amazed at the progress you make. Every little bit adds up. And your English is fine! 🙂

  5. What an excellent analysis, Debbie. So much clarity. I think most of us are confused over decision-making because we can’t separate our feelings from emotions. I love your post and I am bookmarking to read for when I climb that fence next time. Thank you!

  6. I have never heard this before. But it makes so much sense to me. I am an early fifties male and I consider myself to be intelligent yet deeply flawed. I am a faithful husband, yet I still have issues with trust. I am very good at my profession, yet I get no satisfaction from it. My thoughts are non stop and I believe they do effect my feelings. That leads to a denial mechanism that I put up. That leads to bad communication, bad choices and worse of all isolation. I feel that I can fix everything myself, I numb my feelings with substances and hurt myself and others in the process. My biggest fear is to wind up alone. I do not know how I have gotten here but I know it has been festering for years. I am glad I stumbled across this post, I believe it could help me immensely. Now to just get working on it. Thank you for posting this. It might be the beginning of the new and better me.

    • I’m so glad to hear that you found it helpful, Chris. Becoming aware and a willingness to change are always the first steps. Onward! You can improve your life and ways. 🙂

  7. Hi Debbie,

    I enjoyed reading the distinction between emotions and feelings. It’s great to realise that reactions based on flawed interpretations rarely serves us. The 4-step process will be definitely great to follow!

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