Although you see the two words used interchangeably everywhere, there are distinct differences between feelings and emotions. They’re two different things.
Ok. So what. Right?
Well, it kind of is a big deal because understanding the difference between the two can help you change unhealthy behaviors and find more happiness and peace in your life. Feelings and emotions are two sides of the same coin and highly interconnected but are very different things.
Emotions are instinctive responses to your environment. They originate in the subcortical regions of the brain — the limbic system, including the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus — which create biochemical reactions in your body altering your physical state. They bypass your “thinking” brain and originally helped our species survive by allowing them to react quickly to threats and rewards. Emotional reactions are coded in your genes and, while they do vary slightly among individuals, cultures, and circumstances, they are generally universally similar across all humans and even other species. For example, you smile and your dog wags its tail.
The amygdala plays a role in emotional arousal and regulates the release of neurotransmitters essential for memory consolidation which is why emotional memories can be so much stronger and longer-lasting than neutral ones. Emotions precede feelings, are physical, and instinctual. Because they are physical, they can be objectively measured by blood flow, brain activity, facial micro-expressions, and body language.
Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of the brain. The neocortex is a part of the brain that controls consciousness and language and plays a role in higher functions like sensory perception, motor commands, spatial reasoning, and conscious thought. Feelings are the mental associations you attach to your emotions and are subjective being 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 the emotion. Feelings are the next thing that happens after having an emotion, involve cognitive input, usually subconscious, and cannot be measured precisely.
Antonio Damasio, 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.)”
Dr. Sarah Mckay, neuroscientist, and author of the Your Brain Health blog explains it this way:
Feelings Spark Emotions and Emotions Spark Feelings
Feelings are sparked by emotions and colored by your own thoughts, memories, and images that have become subconsciously linked with that particular emotion for you. It works the other way around too. For example, just thinking about something threatening can trigger an emotional fear response. While individual emotions are temporary, the feelings they evoke may persist and grow over a lifetime. Because emotions cause subconscious feelings which, in turn, can initiate emotions and so on, your life can become a never-ending cycle of painful and confusing emotions which produce negative feelings which cause more negative emotions without you ever really knowing why or what is happening.
Basic emotions are instinctual and universally common to all humans. However, the meanings they take on and the feelings they prompt are based on your individual programming, past and present. Feelings are shaped by a person’s temperament and experiences and can vary greatly from person to person and situation to situation.
Your emotions and feelings play a powerful role in how you experience and interact with others and the world. They are the driving force behind many of your behaviors, helpful and unhelpful. It’s possible that you could be reacting to emotions and the feelings they evoke which are guided by unconscious fear-based perceptions which you may not even buy into anymore. However, you’re living your life, making decisions and behaving according to these out-dated tendencies without knowing it. Living unaware this way almost always leads to problems and unhappiness in the long run.
Now that You Know the Difference, You Can Put It to Good Use in Your Life
By understanding the difference between and becoming aware of your emotions and feelings, determining which is which and their root causes, and then inserting conscious thought followed by deliberate action, you can choose how you navigate and experience the world. Doing this can put you in control of yourself and your life. It means the difference between responding or reacting which can invite calm or chaos.
I don’t mean to imply that by becoming aware of emotions and feelings and learning to respond rather than react that life will magically become filled with rainbows and butterflies. I’m suggesting that by learning the difference and changing your thinking and behavior, that no matter what is going on around you, you can maintain your balance, sense of peace, purpose, and hope and move forward toward your goals.
How the Distinction Helped Me
For example in my 18-year marriage, my ex-husband held all the power and control, and was emotionally cruel, and uncaring. He was a narcissist, and I was codependent. In the years following our divorce, he tried to continue the same patterns that were present in the marriage by controlling and harassing me legally. He drug me in and out of court for more than a decade with false allegations of endangering the children, cohabitation, and more. Most of it was pure fabrication, but the court did not know that until they heard each case.
Because of the continual harassment, I learned to fear him and his actions. It got to the point where if I just saw an email from him in my inbox, my heart would start pounding, my breathing would become rapid and shallow, and I would actually start sweating. Soon, I would feel dread, anxious, and worried. My body was first exhibiting the instinctual emotion and the feelings I had learned to associate with him soon followed.
I Broke the Pattern
During the marriage and for years after, I reacted from this fearful place as the overly emotional, angry victim who fought back. As the years passed after the divorce, I slowly evolved, began to live more mindfully, and learned a different way of responding. It took years, but I was eventually able to not knee-jerk react to his antics. I learned to consciously and deliberately choose my feelings and behaviors according to who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life.
While I was in the process of growing, it would frustrate me to no end because my heart would still pound and I would get anxious when just getting a message from him. I felt like my body was betraying me while, in my head, I knew better and remained calm and confident. My body still exhibited the emotion, but I inserted conscious thought and coached and guided myself as to how I wanted to feel and proceed.
When I mastered the skill of not reacting to the ex, life calmed way down for me. I managed to find peace and happiness despite the fact that he continued his attacks on me. (See blog: Bad Things Do Happen To Good People.) With me not reacting and engaging, he eventually got bored and left me alone.
In the gaps between emotion, feeling, and acting, we all have the power to change and direct our lives for the better. Understanding your emotions and managing your feelings with conscious thinking so they don’t hijack your brain followed by conscious action can actually change your brain. over time and with repetition, through neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of your brain to change both form and function due to repeated emotion, thought, and behavior. Over time, you can actually change your default brain patterns and life.
Note – When researching this article I found that there is differing, contradictory even, information out there on the subject of emotions and feelings. My resources for this post primarily come from the work of Antonio Damasio and other neuroscience and mental health professionals. This is one interpretation of feelings and emotions but is by no means the only “right” one.