Behaviors, Emotions, And Feelings: How They Work Together

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated April 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Emotions and feelings are often confused for each other. However, these terms discuss two different experiences. While emotions and feelings are often connected, they can involve different labels and time limits. Understanding the differences between emotions, feelings, and behaviors may help you make healthier behavioral choices when challenging emotions and feelings arise. 

Learning about your feelings can help you manage them

What are emotions? 

Emotions are not conscious. They are reactions produced in your body that often arise from experiences, thoughts, and memories. There has been some debate in research over the number of types of emotions. Some researchers have found over 27 emotions. However, six emotions are often cited as the most common, including the following:

  • Happiness
  • Surprise
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Sadness

Emotions are often expressed with facial expressions. In many cases, there is little difference between the facial expressions of anger and disgust or fear and surprise. Due to this connection, some people cite four primary emotions: happiness, fear, anger, and sadness.

What are feelings?

Feelings happen in the mind and are conscious. They are a reaction to the emotions one is experiencing. Feelings are often based on one's perception of the events or thoughts. For this reason, people often have different feelings about a situation than their peers, even if the same "basic emotions" are incited. 

For example, someone might experience sadness as a physical response to losing someone they love. After sadness arises, they may feel angry at their response to the sadness or the distressing thoughts they experience. 

Emotions and feelings are different because emotions happen because of a physical response within your brain, such as a chemical release. Feelings are a response to the initial emotional reaction. 

Can emotions and feelings impact behavior? 

Because your emotions create a physical response within your mind and your feelings are conscious, they can impact your behavior.

For example, if you're walking down the street at night and think someone is following you, you may experience fear. Your body may react by inciting the fight-flight-freeze response. You may react to this response with further fear or motivation to escape, fight, or freeze. This fear or reaction may impact your behavior. In this situation, you may decide to walk faster, hide from the person, or call them out for following you. 

In some cases, people believe behaviors are justified because of the intensity of their emotions. They may struggle to understand that behavior is a choice that does not have to follow an emotion. For example, when someone is experiencing rage, breaking an item in response is a choice. Instead of breaking an item, healthy individuals may choose to partake in healthy behavior, like taking a break from the conversation that is causing rage. 

When you start paying attention to how behavior impacts relationships, you may notice that the emotions you experience often influence your actions.

The adverse effects of being controlled by emotions 

When an emotion arises, individuals may generally have three choices: react healthily, react negatively, or refuse to react. If you allow your emotions to control your behavior, you may believe you're "running on autopilot" or making choices you regret later. Because your feelings are based on your perception of certain events, they can lead you astray.

In the above example, the person behind you at night may not have been dangerous. However, your perception dictated how you acted because you perceived them as dangerous. While leaving the situation in this example may not have been unsafe, other situations may have adverse effects. 

For example, if your spouse doesn't show up when they're supposed to in the evening, you may feel afraid and think something happened to them. If you allow your feelings to run away with your thoughts, you may think your spouse is cheating. You may start a fight over the situation when they show up at home. In this situation, they may have been stuck in traffic, and their phone died, so they couldn't call to let you know. Letting your emotions take control of your behavior may cause relationship conflict in this example. 

Your emotions are real, but your feelings are based on your perception of the situation. For that reason, your feelings could be misplaced or focused too much on thoughts. You may perceive a situation opposite to what it is, which could lead to feelings that don't match. For that reason, it can be essential to logically examine your decisions before making them. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

How to gain control of your feelings

If you've been in the habit of allowing your feelings to control your life, you may experience regret, sadness, or relationship conflict. Below are a few ways to start taking control of your behavior in response to your feelings. 

Give yourself time to think

Before you act, take a few moments to think about the situation and your feelings. Try to look at the situation from multiple viewpoints to see if the way you perceive the situation is correct. You may find it helpful to try deep breathing exercises or mindfulness meditation to control your nervous system in case fear or anger is motivating you. In these cases, you may lower your blood pressure, slow your breathing, and create space in your mind to look at a situation in a new light.

Learn to recognize your emotions

Some people may struggle to label their emotions, causing a sense of loss of control. Instead of understanding your behaviors, you may react based on a whim or a habit you developed early in life. By learning to label your emotions, you may better understand their meaning and how to cope with them. In addition, studies show that labeling your emotions can have positive mental health impacts

Shift your thoughts

Feelings are often closely related to thoughts. For example, if you are angry, you might think, "I hate this person," even if you don't. Because your feelings are strong, your thoughts may drive you to act unhealthy. However, by restructuring your thoughts and understanding that they may not always be "facts," you can take control away from your emotions. 

You're not alone if you often experience negative self-talk or pessimistic thoughts. By focusing on these thoughts and understanding their core, you can reframe them in a more accurate or optimistic way. In the example of having thoughts about hating another person, you might replace the thought with a statement like, "I'm angry about this person's actions. I don't hate them, but I'd like to take a break from speaking to them to cope with my emotions." 

Realize you can control your behavior

If you're a parent, you may have spent time trying to teach your child how to behave. If you've ever seen a toddler get upset, you may have witnessed an emotional explosion as the child struggles to control their emotions. They may have thrown themselves down, pounded their hands on the ground, screamed, and cried. Toddlers are still learning how to control their feelings and behaviors.

Adults learn not to behave like a toddlers, but there may be other behaviors in your life that you also struggle to control. For example, some adults may yell when they're angry. In addition, some people may quit their jobs or run away from situations when they fear failure. These reactions are like temper tantrums; they are uncontrolled and often impulsive. 

You can control your behavior, even if it's complicated. However, you don't have to do it alone. If you're struggling, talking to a licensed therapist for support may be beneficial. 

Learning about your feelings can help you manage them

Work with a therapist

Working with a licensed therapist may be beneficial if you find it challenging to recognize your emotions or gain control of your thoughts and behaviors. In addition, if you face barriers to in-person therapy, you may try therapy on an online platform like BetterHelp. 

Get support with online therapy

Online therapy platforms match clients with therapists that meet their profile needs. When you sign up, you can set your treatment goals, explain your symptoms or concerns, and leave notes about the type of therapist you're interested in meeting with. In addition, online therapy allows clients to choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, offering a sense of control. 

Studies back up the effectiveness of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which targets thought patterns and how they interact with emotions, feelings, and behaviors. One study found that online CBT for depression was more effective than in-person therapy in some cases. 


Understanding the differences between emotions, feelings, and behaviors can be essential to changing those you aren't comfortable with. One way to understand these challenges is by speaking to a licensed professional. Consider talking to a therapist online or in your area to get started.
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