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Although the two words are used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between feelings and emotions.

Ok.  Big deal.

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 two very different things.

Emotions

Emotions are lower level responses occurring in the subcortical regions of the brain, the amygdala, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices, creating biochemical reactions in your body altering your physical state. They originally helped our species survive by producing quick reactions to threat, reward, and everything in between in their environments. Emotional reactions are coded in our genes and while they do vary slightly individually and depending on circumstances, 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 regulate the release of neurotransmitters essential for memory consolidation which is why emotional memories can be so much stronger and longer-lasting. 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

Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of the brain, are mental associations and reactions to emotions, and are subjective being influenced by personal experience, 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 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 like this:

Feelings are sparked by emotions and colored by the 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, the feelings they evoke may persist and grow over a lifetime.  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.

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While basic emotions are instinctual and common to us all, the meanings they take on and the feelings they prompt are individually based on our programming past and present. Feelings are shaped by a person’s temperament and experiences 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 behaviors, 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 decisions and behaving according to these out-dated tendencies. Living unaware like this almost always leads to problems and unhappiness in the long run.

Putting The Difference 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. Being able to do this means responding or reacting which can make the difference in a calm or 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 am 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, your sense of peace, purpose, and hope and move forward toward your goals.

For example in my 18-year marriage, my ex-husband held all the power and control, was emotionally cruel, and uncaring. In the years following our divorce, he continued the treatment by harassing me legally as he drug me in and out of court for a decade with false allegations of endangering the children, cohabitation, and more. 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. 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 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. 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 way down for me, and 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)

While I was in the process of growing, it would frustrate me to no end because my heart would still pound upon 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 instructed myself 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 thinking so they don’t hijack your brain followed by conscious 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, and change your 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 D’Amasio and other neuroscience and mental health professionals.  This is one interpretation of feelings and emotions, but is by no means the only “right” one.

Image Source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/34771728@N00/

54 Comments

  1. Debbie,
    I relieved a horrible relationship that we had with some neighbors that made my body do just what yours did. I promised myself I wouldn’t feel that way but then sure enough I’d feel that way. It took years to get over. Thanks for the well written article!

    • dblhampton Reply

      Betsy,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I learned that I couldn’t control my emotions and did not need to. What I needed to control was my feelings and behaviors. I still get a little ancy when I see an email from him, but I’ve made so much progress! Feels good. Glad you healed from your dealings with your neighbors.

  2. Interesting Debbie, feelings v emotions. I think ultimately they both create a vibration within which leads to more of the same in our outer physical world..viz-a-vis your experience with your ex. As you explain so clearly the answer lies with choosing what feelings we actually want and how we decide to perceive the event…a sort of reality check if you will.
    Of course, simple to say and a bit of effort required to do! 🙂

    • dblhampton Reply

      Elle, thank you for your insights. Yes, as with everything on the growth path…much easier said than done, but well worth the effort! Becoming aware and choosing my perception and feelings has changed my world for the better.

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  7. Hugo Martini Reply

    Just came across your website. I recently suffered a traumatic accident in which I am in the process of understanding more about how the brain works and how I can overcome what happened to me by learning how the brain works. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and story, it’s inspiring!

    • Thank you, Hugo and all the best to you. Keep going. Understanding your brain is the first step to really healing it. You can improve, and you will. It takes patience and persistence.

    • Debbie, I enjoyed your article and testimonial on the difference between emotions and feelings. It was very informative and very well written. I defined both words extensively using the dictionaries online before I read your article. The dictionaries were helpful. But reading your article gave me more insight; and the readers responses helped to give me another angle to view from. Your article helped me to better understand my attitude towards my elderly mother who is living with temporarily. The Bible says to “Honor your father and mother….” I have trying to obey the word of God and I found myself not very pleasant and unfriendly towards her. She was a good mother. But now, I am seeing the real her, her character. She did and does not want to talk about things we need to dicuss, concerning me. We have had verbal battles but they have decreased considerably. I had to tell her recently of sexual abuse she allowed me to endure for years. I now realize why I have responded to her in an unfriendly manner. There is truly a difference between emotions and feelings. I have experienced them. While reading your article, I was able to discern the difference. Mike Murdock, the Wisdom Doctor, teaches about difference. Truly, the Holy Bible has been my comfort in my afflictions…: and, I believe the Holy Ghost has led me to your article at this 3 AM hour. Thank you for this article. You are right, we must share our stories to help ourselves and others. May God continue to bless you.
      Vera

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  11. Another one of your best blog posts! I loved that you explain a common ‘misunderstood’ words explain it perfectly and than give some private examples as well! please do for more phrases as this and [personality and character] ya i can’t forget soo good things! 🙂

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  13. johnspeed114 Reply

    I sorta disagree with the definition of feelings and emotions. For me, feelings are the information from your senses including the current physical state of your body, while emotion triggered by the event drives from past experiences.

    • I see how that makes sense, John. The definitions to which I refer are scientific, but we each have to use the ones that work for us.

  14. Hi Debbie, you seem to know your stuff. And it`s wonderful that you think you`ve become less reactive to your husband`s communication.

    I`ve always used these two terms the other way around, considered feelings the `raw` versions of emotions, the pure energetic quality you feel when you decide to fully feel the emotion until it fills up your consciousness and turns into neutral energy. I`ll be using them according to your interpretation here.

    I`ve found that when I change my relationship with my `story` about what happened and take full responsibility for it, I begin to tell it differently. This involves talking about the events by mentioning observations instead of evaluations and judgements, like you used in talking about your 18 years of marriage. No doubt it still has got some control over your emotions and feelings, as you`ve mentioned.

    Even though you didn`t mention you work with meanings, I believe the way you control your feelings is by becoming aware of the negative meaning you give to what is happening (or you imagine is going to happen) and dissolve it. This in turn changes the negative feeling.

    You are still saying that your interactions with your husbans still trigger emotions in you but you can deal with the feelings now.

    Our emotions are never created by the meaning we give to events, only our feelings are.

    Negative emotions are automatically created by events that pose a Real threat to our survival or reproduction and obviously getting an email from your ex-husband doesn`t count as a real threat to these.

    Since you identify these as emotions, and emotions are not triggered by meaning, they must be created by Conditioning. That is, your feelings, caused by false interpretations of not being able to survive (you and/or your children) and being powerless against what your husband was doing, were conditioned to the occasions when you were in contact with him in all those different ways in person, through email etc.

    Even when your beliefs that say “I`m powerless”, “What I want/need/feel doesn`t matter” “I never get what I want” “I`m not good enough” etc. are eliminated and you stop giving negative meaning to what is happening, you will still have a general sense of fear and powerlessness. This is because these states were associated with your husband contacting you, by those events and your states of being repeatedly happening together.

    If you think you`ve got rid of all the underlying beliefs and meanings you give to events in the moment (which you may not have done yet), the negative state that has been conditioned to communicating with your husband will need to be addressed too before the story can truly change. It can be as easy as realising that you used to be dependent on your husband, like you used to be on your parents when you were a child when you were feeling powerless and abused around him, but now you`ve gained the ability to set your boundaries and meet your own needs and in today`s changed circumstances communicating with him wouldn`t cause you negative feelings. It only caused negative feelings to your old `child` self that was dealing with your husband in that marriage when these things became associated and conditioned with each other. Consciously differentiating between the two and realising that your circumstances (you) have changed, will help. Trying this trick might help you turn this story into a magnificent epic of empowerment and personal responsibility.

    I wish you a lot of success with your website and your mission!

    • Attila,

      Thank you for your many thoughts! 🙂 In researching the article, the definition of feelings being in the mind and emotions being in the body is universally accepted. However, sounds like you have a different way of thinking about them which works for you. That’s what it is all about and what matters. And yes, our experience of this life, feelings and emotions all boil down to the meaning we give to everything. Therein lies our power to create our wn peace and happiness. All the best to you!

  15. Jeremiah Overland Reply

    I made a video about some of the different feelings we humans have.
    Check it out!

  16. Ahmed Derradji-Aouat Reply

    OK, the play between emotions and feeling. How do I release the entire experience (feelings and emotions)? How emotionsfeelings are stored in subconscious – they seem permanent?

    • Subconscious is pervasive, but not permanent and can be changed. You have to become aware of your beliefs and thoughts and consciously work to change them. Mindfulness, meditation, thought reframing, cognitive behavioral therapy, Byron Katie’s “The Work”, Jeffrey Schwartz four Rs, (all covered on this website, just search a term in the box in the upper right corner) can change core beliefs.

  17. Nittshkeul Aramwit Reply

    Now I got it. Love the way you explained about the casual relationship between the two and the never-ending-pain effect in life.

    Thank you much!

  18. Helen Weeds Reply

    Thanks for this discussion thread – there are so many soundbites from people on here which are not disembodied poster catchphrases, but real soundbites which relate to real situations. Very helpful.

  19. Jaimal Bhola Reply

    Thank you so much for this really informative article. Really helpful!

  20. After reading your article this is how I summed up what to do going forward:
    Understand my emotions and manage my feelings, do not let my feelings control me
    1. pause when I notice I have an emotion (I can’t change the emotion right now), understand what it is
    2. separate it from how I felt after I experienced the emotion (because my feeling is the result of my action or inaction after a particular event took place in the past after I experienced the emotion)
    3. then lead myself to take the actions that aligns with my goal and/or the person I want to be (this new action will result in new feelings, which will override the old feelings)

    • That is a very helpful interpretation of the information and a good action plan! Thank you for sharing it.

  21. Hi Debbie,

    I stumbled upon your website when I was searching for the difference between emotions and feelings. Then I read your story. I felt that I had to write to you. The difference between emotions and feelings apart, I would like to congratulate you being a bold, strong and a wise woman. Congratulations on taking that first decision to live differently to the way you had been living. Congratulations on reclaiming your life. After what you went through and then the journey of personal growth that you undertook, you are an inspiration for women, especially women who go through similar circumstances.

    My best wishes are with you.

    xoxox
    Jane

    • Jane,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. They are greatly appreciated. I have learned that by sharing our knowledge and our stories, we can all help each other heal. You would like my memoir. It tells more of the back story than the website. All the best to you. 🙂

  22. You’ll find a recent book by Joseph Le Doux quite helpful – Anxious. Le Doux is a neuroscientist who has a long career in trying to understand emotion and the brain. Indeed his early work was cited by Goleman when he was formulating his ideas on EI. What Le Doux suggests is that emotions have a physical and a cognitive part and that we often misread the physical. For example when we are afraid we might sweat, When we are embarrassed we might sweat. So when we notice we are sweating, the cognitive part of our brain has to decide if it is anxiety or embarassment – because it has to do this quickly the physical part of the emotion can get misattributed. Hence instead of feeling embarrassed, I feel anxious which then translates into a fear of public speaking as an example….Different emotions do have a similar affect in the body due to release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. In order to understand the emotion one has to really understand the meaning we attach to it, Once we understand the ‘physical’ impact of the emotion, then we can start to explore the ‘cognitive’ part which ultimately governs how we think about it. Your story is a great example of what happens when we are able to uncouple the two.

    • Interesting interpretation. I’m not familiar with the book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Peter.

  23. Hi Debbie,

    Thanks for this very interesting article – you made this very accessible. I read another article which was somewhat different (http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0512/03-shouse.php), and this may be down to the difference in scientific opinion around this that you mentioned, but I’d appreciate your thoughts in two areas:

    1. I’m aware that in addition to emotion and feeling, ‘affect’ also exists, and I’m trying to tell them apart. According to the above article, affect is non-conscious; it’s our body’s registration of stimuli (for example, when a baby cries, it’s not experiencing an emotion OR feeling as its brain isn’t yet developed). Is this how you view this? Or could you reframe this in a way that fits with your above, very accessible, description?

    2. The article above also mentions that emotions can either be genuine or contrived – i.e., if we act a certain way (subconsciously or consciously) in order to live up to social expectations. I don’t know if I buy this. Based on how you describe it, an emotion is felt in the body and we don’t control it. Based on your article, it would seem that the ‘contrived’ emotions mentioned above are more accurately described as a response TO emotion (and that emotion might be the desire to fit in). Am I on the right track?

    The description that you give above really makes sense in terms of emotional intelligence – because we’re managing our responses to the emotions that arise within us. We’re choosing how to respond to what our body’s telling us, or what our amygdyla is signaling: it’s almost as though the feelings we have are the result of how we respond to our emotions.

    • Megan,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. What you say also makes a lot of sense. As I state in the post, there are different theories as to how it all happens in our brains and bodies. I’m sorry that I don’t really follow your specific questions. As there is debate on the topic still. I think you have to decide what makes sense and is plausible to you and go with it! 🙂

  24. Sean Culver Reply

    Debbie! This has to be one of the most awesome articles I’ve read about feelings and emotions. I no pro at this stuff but I have been trying so hard to choose my feelings and reactions. Just as everyone in life has their battles they face, I have a ton of my own. Recognizing that I was abusive in relationships and just exactly how I was being abusive was the hardest thing ever for me accept. It was this realization that led me down a path to self-understanding. It was back in December of 2012 when I became single. My girlfriend of 5 years told me point blank “Sean you’re abusive and until you fix yourself, there will never be an us” My abusiveness was in the form of passive aggressiveness. The more I realized this the more depressed I became as I was now seeing myself for who I truly was even though I always thought I was loving and caring. Well, I now again believe I’m still loving and caring, but because of my personal understanding I can’t allow myself to enter into a relationship knowing full well I have not yet mastered my ability to correctly choose my feelings. Why would I want to put another woman in that kind of a situation. So I’ve essentially friend-zoned myself for life. LOL At least until I’m confident I won’t be harmful to other. And I don’t mean physically. I’ve never once physically hurt a woman. But I was destroyed when I realized what passive aggressive behavior did. Even more so to see what It’s done to my own life. There is a long road of “behavioral changes” to be made If you know what I mean. So this leads me to my main reason for reaching out to you. What’s the difference between feelings and emotions? In a sarcastic answer but with plenty of seriousness, feelings are many, emotion is singular. Its the driving force of our feelings. it’s simply fear. The lack of understanding the root cause of the fear enables the endless cycle of feelings that will always be confused until the root cause of the fear is understood. I almost feel like you wanted to break it down to one singular thing as i read your article. I tried to make my own list of emotions as well as look at many other lists of emotions. They all started with with Fear then listed feelings as emotions. Its as if the people making the lists were confused about what emotion was. You mentioned there was no one “right” way (or something along that line) That part of the article had me thinking you were just being respectful to the great minds in this field. I may be wrong, but I would really be ecstatic to hear back from you about this. Everything I’ve come to know about myself is self taught. I’ve always explained as (Feelings are a secondary reaction to a primary emotion). But for the life of me, I cannot define any other emotion other than fear itself. so to reword it to (Feelings are a secondary reaction to the primary emotion) just feels more concrete. Sorry for rambling. Thank you, Thank you so much for the wonderful article.

    • Sean,
      Thank you for your message. I applaud your bravery for looking at who you really were and accepting what you were really doing. That is the first essential step to change. I would encourage you not to “friend- zone”yourself” for too long. The only way you will progress and grow in this area is to grow through actual relationships. You won’t get it perfect, and you don’t have to, but it is how you will progress. I don’t know about the whole singular and many thing. Both feelings and emotions are many. The main difference is where they originate and how they manifest.

      I also think it’s erroneous and a little sad to say that all emotions originate in fear. No they do not. What about love? Happiness? Gratitude. If they are expressed as fear for you, then I would encourage you to work with that.

      I’m sorry, I don’t really understand your question about being respectful to great minds. I can assure you that is not what I’m doing. I do wholeheartedly believe that there is no one “right” for anything. What is right for you, is right for you which may be very different for me.

      All the best to you.

  25. Hi Debbie,
    I felt compelled to write and tell you thank you. My situation is a bit different, but I am trying to change my way of thinking and behaviors that are causing me to let other people control or walk all over me. Today I was opening myself up to get walked on by a controlling ex boyfriend when I stumbled this article and it was just what i needed to read to stop that from happening . so I wanted to say thank you.

    • Glad to hear that it helped. Good for you for embarking upon change. It IS entirely possible. Keep going! 🙂

  26. Hello Debbie,

    I came across your website for a completely different reason other than selfgrowth (although I do participate in that too). I was searching for information on how in literature characters develope over their lifetime and how they develope over the course of a story. Your article has given me much more pieces of that puzzle than I could have hoped for. Thank you so much! You’ve given me the knowledge to answer one of my most knawing questions I just couldn’t find the answer for in other to even think of writing realistically beleaving characters.
    Understanding the difference between emotions and feelings has given me a much better interpretation on how characters develop over their lifetime. This is excellent material for character development and character arc.

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