The words “emotions” and “feelings” are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. Nonetheless, we suggest that you think of them as distinct, but largely related terms – two sides of a coin. On one side is an emotion: the physical response to change which is universal and hard-wired. The other end is your feelings: mental reactions to emotions which are personal and acquired through experience. Although they seem similar, emotions proceed feelings. Like with the coin, what you notice depends on where you’re looking.
Since emotions are physical, it is possible to measure them objectively by brain activity, blood flow, body stance, and facial expressions. And since feelings are psychological or mental, it’s not possible to measure them precisely. Emotions are easily understood and predictable, while feelings are confusing and idiosyncratic. Feeling usual reflects the personal connections to emotions. So, what exactly are emotions and feelings? To tackle this question, let’s examine each separately.
Picture this: You scuttle through the subway, on the run to catch your train. While attempting to find your way through the crowd, you notice your old friend who you haven’t seen or spoken to in ages. Before you know it, you are overwhelmed with excitement, and you begin to tear up. You try to give her a proper hug forgetting you have a train to catch.
Emotions are the lower level responses that occur in the subcortical sections of your brain (amygdala, a part of a limbic system) and the neocortex (the ventromedial prefrontal cortices, a part that deals with conscious reasoning, thoughts, and decision making). These kinds of responses create electrical and biochemical reactions in your body to alter the physical state – technically, emotion is a neurological response to some emotional stimuli.
Emotions are a natural aspect. You can consider them as instinctive and physical since emotions arise from the body’s responses to outside stimuli . For instance, when in an unfamiliar place, you may be faced with different kinds of emotions including fear and anxiety.
Originally, these emotions assisted our ancestors to survive by producing quick responses to reward, threat, and other external environment stimuli. Over the years, the reactions have been coded into our system and genes. They are universal, although there are some slight variations depending on a person or the circumstances they face. Emotions are also apparent in animals. For example, your dog may wag its tail when it hears its name, which is a physical manifestation of emotions.
Since an emotion is a physical state, it’s possible to measure those using physical factors such as body language, skin conductance (GSR), heart rate (ECG), pupil dilation (eye tracking), facial expression, brain activity (EEG-fMRI), and blood flow.
Let’s look into the fear emotion. Fear is a response or reaction to imminent danger. You can notice different physical reaction such as racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, and tightening of muscles.
You should know that emotions are often considered as illogical, irrational, and unreasonable because they are facilitated by the limbic system that is separate from neocortex that deals with conscious thoughts, reasoning, and decision making.
Despite the conscious or unconscious manifestations, emotions do not necessarily need to be conscious, and some of these emotions, such as being in love with your best friend, or hating your parent, might only be uncovered, if not admitted, after a long time in psychotherapy. If the emotion is unconscious, it’s often due to self-deception and or some form of repression.
Feelings come from the neocortical regions of your brain, are mental reactions and associations to emotions. They are being influenced by individual beliefs, experiences, and memories. Feelings are the psychological depiction of what’s happening in your body when you get emotional and are byproducts of your brain, obtaining and assigning meaning to emotions. Feelings are what happen next after you’ve had an emotion, and involves cognitive input, often subconscious, and can’t be measured precisely .
Feelings play out in the head. According to the English language, there are over three thousand feelings. Most individuals can quickly identify at least five hundred of these, buy when asked to mention a few. Emotion is universal and comes first. The type of feeling this emotion will become varies greatly from one individual to another, and from circumstance to the other since feelings result from personal experience and individual temperament. Two people can experience the same emotion but categorize it under different names. For instance: you’re in a zoo, and you happen to see a lion; your feeling may range from admiration to curiosity or even bitterness if you don’t believe in caging of lions.
Can you measure feelings?
Unlike emotions, feelings are difficult to measure. However, their conscious nature makes it possible to measure them by using the self-reporting tools such as surveys, interviews, and questionnaires that include rating scales and self-assessment processes.
Note: A Self-Assessment Manikin of Bradley and Lang is a non-verbal imagery assessment procedure that measures feelings directly (pleasure – displeasure) as well as the arousal levels (high – low) of the respondents when confronted with different emotional stimuli .
So what are the difference in emotions and feelings?
Emotions are usually driven by events while feelings are behaviors that are learned and are often in hibernation until they are triggered by external stimuli. The differences in emotions and feelings are highlighted in the table below.
|Emotions makes us aware of our likes and dislikes||Feelings show us how to live|
|Emotion state: there are bad and good actions||State of feeling: there is a wrong and right way to live|
|State of emotion: The external world matters||State of feelings: emotions matter|
|Emotions create out attitude (initial) toward reality||Feelings create our attitude (long term) toward reality|
|Emotions make use aware of the immediate dangers and make us prepared for actions||Feelings make us alert to anticipated dangers|
|Emotions are often intense but temporary||These are low-key but sustainable|
|Emotions ensure the immediate survival of the body and mind||Feelings ensure the long-term survival of the body and mind|
|Fear is an emotion||Worry is a feeling|
|Joy is an emotion||Happiness is a feeling|
Whereas emotions are inborn to everyone, the meanings they obtain and the feelings they create are entirely personal. Feelings are often shaped by personal experiences as well as individual temperament. They vary widely from person to person and from one circumstance to the other. For that reason, there are many different ways to feel a particular emotion.
Learning to identify and differentiate emotions from feeling is crucial if your goal is to become an emotional detective. This helps in explaining why people experience feeling in different ways. Even better, creating a clear distinction between emotions and feelings helps to make space in your brain for having different kinds of feelings, and places you on a path to understanding them.
By understanding the distinction between feelings and emotions, you’ll be in a position to get to the bottom of your emotions and underlie the feelings. This will go a long way in assisting you to break the continuous cycle of feelings and emotions which torment and confuse you. As a result, you will be able to straighten out your inner sphere to feel much better.