Understanding the Difference Between Emotions and Feelings – and Why It Matters


By Debbie Hampton

Guest Writer for Wake Up World

Although feelings and emotions are two sides of the same coin, they are very distinct events and understanding the difference can help you increase your emotional intelligence and happiness.

Emotions originate in the subcortical regions of the brain, the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices, and create biochemical reactions in the body altering your physical state which originally helped our species survive by producing quick reactions to threats and rewards. Emotional reactions are coded in our genes and are universally similar across all humans and even other species. For example, you smile and your dog wags its tail.

The amygdala, involved in emotional arousal, also regulate the release of neurotransmitters essential for memory consolidation which is why emotional memories can be so strong and long-lasting. Emotions proceed feelings, are physical, and instinctual. Because they’re physical, emotions can be objectively measured by blood flow, brain activity, facial micro-expressions, and body language.

Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of the brain, are mental associations and reactions to emotions, and are subjectively influenced by personal experience, beliefs, and memories. A feeling is the mental portrayal of what’s 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 follow emotion, involve cognitive input, are usually below conscious awareness, and cannot be measured scientifically.

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.)

Dr. Sarah Mckay, neuroscientist and author of the Your Brain Health blog explains it as:

Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind.

Feelings are sparked by emotions and colored by thoughts, memories, and images that have become subconsciously linked with that particular emotion for you. But 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 and in response to specific events, the feelings they evoke may persist and grow over time. Because emotions cause subconscious feelings which in turn 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.

While basic emotions are instinctual and common to us all, the meanings they take on and the feelings they prompt are individual based on our programming and experiences. Feelings depend on person’s temperament and past learning and 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 the world because they are the driving force behind many of your behaviors, both helpful and unhelpful. It’s possible to react to emotions and the feelings they evoke which are guided by unconscious fear-based perceptions which you may not buy into anymore, yet you’re living your life, making decision and behaving according to these out-dated tendencies. Living unaware like this almost always leads to problems and unhappiness.

Why It Matters

By understanding the difference between your emotions and feelings, and becoming aware of them, determining which is which and their root causes, you can insert conscious thought followed by deliberate action, and choose how you navigate and experience the world. Being able to do this means responding versus reacting. This can make the difference between a calm life or a chaotic life.

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 – no matter what’s going on around you – you can maintain your balance, sense of peace, purpose, and hope, and keep moving toward your goals.

For example in my 18 year marriage, my ex-husband held all the power and was a controlling narcissist. In the years following our divorce, he continued his intimidation by harassing me legally. I learned to fear him and his actions. 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. Then, I would soon feel dread, anxious, and worried. My body was exhibiting the instinctual emotion of fear followed by the feelings I had learned to associate with him.

During the marriage and for years after, I reacted from this fearful place as an overly emotional, angry victim who fought back. After the divorce, I slowly evolved, began to live more mindfully, and learned a different way. It took years, but I was eventually able to not knee-jerk react to his antics and to consciously and deliberately choose my feelings and behaviors according to who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life. When I mastered this skill, life calmed down, and I managed to find peace and happiness despite the fact that he continued his attacks on me.

While I was in the process of growing, it would frustrate me because my heart would still pound upon just receiving a message from him. I felt like my body was betraying me; yet, in my head, I remained calm and confident. My body was still exhibiting the emotion of fear, but I inserted conscious thought and instructed my brain as to how I wanted to feel and proceed.

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 thought so they don’t hijack your brain followed by deliberate action can actually change your brain through neuroplasticity, the scientifically proven ability of your brain to change form and function based on repeated emotion, thought, and behavior, which can change your life.

About the author:
Debbie Hampton
Debbie Hampton recovered from depression, a suicide attempt, and resulting brain injury to become an inspirational writer. On her blog, The Best Brain Possible she tells about lifestyle, behavior and thought modifications, alternative therapies, and mental health practices she used to rebuild her brain and life to find joy and thrive and tells you how to do the same. No brain injury required!

Connect with Debbie at Facebook.com/BestBrainPossible and her website TheBestBrainPossible.com, and look out for her upcoming memoir, Sex, Suicide and Serotonin. You can read an excerpt here.


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