People and even researchers use the terms emotions and feelings interchangeably.
Emotions and feelings actually describe two different processes that philosopher William James highlighted – bodily driven ones (emotions) and thinking-driven ones (feelings).
Emotions are your subconscious reactions to physical experience – the information from your environment that comes in through your five senses (sight, touch, earing, taste and smell).
Emotions are your brain’s split-second responses to situation, and they kick off modifications in your body. Some of these bodily changes are perceptible to other people – like shifts in skin coloration (blushing), posture and facial expressions. Other modifications, such as heart pounding and gut twitching, are perceptible only to the person living them.
For example, you think you are alone in a room when you sense a slight movement in the far corner. You don’t notice it on a conscious level, but your senses pick it up. They in turn, message your brain’s threat-detection circuitry – the amygdala – before you have any conscious awareness that there may be something to fear. That circuitry, in turn, set off neurochemical reactions that put your body on the alert and ready to run or fight with that threat. It’s only then – after your body get into the act – that feelings finally come in.
Feelings are your conscious reactions expressed in thoughts. They are your mind’s conscious interpretation of the environmental input affecting your body. They are like mental experiences of bodily states.
However, feelings aren’t just reactions to environmental input. Memories, past experiences, beliefs, patterns and associations (linking the different things together) play an essential role in feelings, bringing meaning to whatever you’re experiencing. This meaning-making process happens last in the emotion-feeling sequence.
Emotions → Feelings → Meaning
Your feelings are trying to act in your best interest by protecting you. Let’s say you suddenly feel annoyed. Before you know it, you’re snapping at your friends. Common wisdom says when you have a bad feeling to express it, but that doesn’t always work. When you don’t know why you’re in a bad mood, venting tends to perpetuate the mood without clarify anything. You may end up saying things you might later regret and push your friends away. What can help: thinking of past experiences that feel similar to this one. When analyzing a problem, your brain doesn’t say, What is this? It says. What is this like? It’s predicting rather then reacting to cues of the environment. You may realize that the tone of voice your friend used got your guard up because it reminds you of your critical dad’s voice. Your brain runs on patterns, so finding that pattern match will help you get over the bad mood faster.
Understanding the difference between emotions and feelings helps us take advantage of how the body and the mind are connected and work together to shape who we are and how we experience our world.
(sources: Psychology Today magazine (feb 2018) and First (march 2017).