Is There A Difference Between Feelings And Emotions?

Updated March 23, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

People often use the terms “feelings” and “emotions” interchangeably as they seemingly mean the same when talking about subjects that regard the human emotional experience. In psychology, however, they both have distinct meanings despite imparting interconnective relativity with one another.  Feelings are a self-contained phenomenal experience that typically is judged as either pleasant or unpleasant experience. Whereas, according to psychology scientists, emotions can be considered the “grammar of social living” that places the self into a social and moral order that reinforces relationships. In this article, you will learn how to identify the difference between feelings and emotions and better understand how the human mind works.

Feelings And Emotions Are Distinct Parts Of Ourselves

Emotions And Feelings Defined

To better understand the differences between feelings and emotions, it is important to learn what they each mean individually. 

What Are Emotions And Why Do We Have Them?

According the American Psychological Association, emotions are complex reaction patterns that arise in an individual due to a personally significant issue or event. The unique significance of the event determines the quality of the emotion. An example of a significant event that causes an emotional response would be extreme airplane turbulence eliciting a feeling of fear. Emotions typically involve feelings but are implicitly engaged with the world. 

Emotions emerge subconsciously in several brain areas, including the subcortical region, the amygdala, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices. The stimulus of these areas of the brain cause  to occur and change our physical and emotional state. 

You may have heard of the “fight-or-flight” response before, where when faced with danger or any stressful event, you will experience anxiety symptoms, such as a racing heart or sweating.

This is a form of basic emotion and it is deeply ingrained in the genetic code in humans because it has helped us survive as a species. However, we can also experience similar inclinations when rewarded or simply by interacting with our environment. 

Because these inclinations are a neurochemical reaction from a stimulus, they are also considered unconscious and instinctive. It is possible to bring these out into consciousness through psychotherapy, though. 

The Psychology

According to psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, there are six universal emotions that all humans can experience. These emotional responses are:

  • Happiness

  • Sadness

  • Fear

  • Disgust

  • Anger

  • Surprise

This was determined based on conducting research with two isolated tribes in Papua New Guinea, the Southern Fore and Kukukuku, in the early 1970s. When presented with images of the faces that are associated with each emotional state, the tribe was able to identify their corresponding moods correctly. Afterward, they continued emotion research by taking pictures of the Southern Fore and Kukukuku performing these facial expressions and showing them to other cultures around the world. The results were exactly the same. 

In addition to these six basic moods and universal facial expressions, sounds can often accompany them. For instance, if presented with something that is foul-smelling, humans will make a disgusted facial reaction usually paired with a “yuck” sound or something similar to express that they are offended. This is known as universal human signaling

Another example of a universal emotional signal is smiling and laughing. Smiling and laughter are two things that are often paired up together, and it’s seen in basically all cultures.

However, it is not required that everyone shows these signs; people can still have emotions internally, without outwardly showing it to those around them.

Nonetheless, they are still essential in human interaction and forming relationships with each other, and they have had a crucial role in the evolution of our species since these basic moods have also been observed in non-human primates, especially the great apes. Thus, emotions are a form of universal communication across all languages and cultures that preclude spoken language and act as the “grammar of social living”.

What Are Feelings And How Are They Different From Emotions?

In contrast to emotions, feelings originate in the neocortical region of the brain and are reactions to the emotional stimulus. These form when your brain assigns a meaning to the emotional experience that you are having.

Because they are based on an emotional experience, they can be entirely subjective and vary from person to person. If we are to look at any basic emotion that was discussed in the previous section, you can attach the word feel, felt, or feeling to any of them. For example, you can feel happy or angry, or you felt sad, or you are feeling disgusted.

More Specificity With Feelings Than Emotion

Feelings can become even more specific than these emotional responses, though, and they can also be brought up from your physical reactions to various things. Pain and hunger are a couple of examples of this.  If you are injured, you can feel pain, or if you have not eaten all day, you are bound to feel hungry at some point.

All of this indicates that these dispositions are noticed at the conscious level, and according to Antonio Damasio, professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, these inclinations are mental experiences of body states and arise as your brain interprets the subconscious moods. Damasio theorizes that feelings arise due to the human brain interpreting emotions – the physical signals of the body reacting to an external stimulus. His primary theory stipulates that the interplay of emotions and feelings is the core of consciousness and emotional control processes preserve life while shaping personal and cultural accomplishments. 

Unlike emotions, feelings are completely conscious, and this is one of the key differences between them. However, not all conscious experiences are inclinations necessarily; you are aware of what you are seeing or hearing, or any of the primary senses, but they are not feelings.  Although they are two separate concepts, as you can see, they are not unrelated to each other by any means. In the next section, you will learn more about how these two types of inclinations can intertwine.

Feelings And Emotions Are Distinct Parts Of Ourselves

How To Determine The Differences Between Feelings And Emotions

Your brain tends to assign a meaning to these moods to create a feeling, but it can also go the other way around, too, depending on the experiences you have been exposed to.

Take arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, as an example. Perhaps at some point in your life, you had a negative experience with a spider and ever since you feel afraid or threatened by them. At the same time, you are having emotional experiences, such as fear or disgust.

You do not necessarily need to be exposed to a spider anymore, though, and just the mere thought of one can trigger an emotional response in the brain, which then automatically makes you feel discomfort because your mind has already made an association between the stimulus, emotions, and feelings.

The Psychology Of Emotion

Your moods can affect your behaviors towards things as well, and this can allow feelings towards them to persist. You can actively try to stay away from spiders or avoid thinking about them to prevent an unwanted emotional response, but this creates more fear. Similarly, these emotional responses can cause you to pursue things because you expect a positive emotional response.

However, moods tend to be temporary, and as mentioned before, emotional responses can be persistent and people may not even fully understand why. This can create a cycle of having emotions that create negative feelings, which then cause more emotions. 

Because your emotions and feelings significantly impact your behaviors, it can greatly influence how you interact with the world, and this can cause people to adopt either unhealthy or healthy behaviors. Since they shape your behaviors, becoming aware of these emotions and fully understanding your emotional responses will be necessary to make any changes.

Understanding Your Emotions And Feelings

Your feelings are apparent to you, and they can easily be described or measured, but due to the subconscious nature of emotions, it will take work to make you aware of them. However, becoming in tune with both will be essential to changing thoughts and behaviors. 

Self-Awareness As A Vehicle For Change

In order to do this, you will need to develop a sense of awareness. One of the most straightforward ways to develop awareness of your emotions is to pay attention to the physical sensations that occur after a stimulus (i.e., being surprised) such as your heartbeat or temperature.

In fact, these physical sensations are the only ways that emotions can truly be measured. For instance, pupil dilation through eye tracking, heart rate with electrocardiography (ECG), or simply facial expressions, can give us an objective measurement of emotions, because they are body reactions. 

When you develop awareness for both your emotions and feelings, you can navigate the world around you more freely. You may be able to figure out the causes of them, make a conscious thought, and then you can act as you see fit. You can choose to respond or react, or you can ignore things, and this can help you lead a more positive lifestyle and feel more peaceful. It will take practice, nonetheless.

While spending time on your own to develop an awareness of your emotional reactions and associated feelings is possible, you may find working with a professional therapist can give you an outside perspective that helps you understand clearly and more objectively.

Finding Professional Support

To bring out your emotions into consciousness, you can work closely with a counselor or therapist who can help you improve your own sense of emotional awareness. Many people manage mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder, that cause issues with emotional control. Two major therapies known as dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are known to help people manage emotional dysregulation – the inability to control emotional responses to a stimulus, such as sadness, anger, or anxiety. If you are struggling with overwhelming emotions or simply do not understand why you are experiencing intense emotional responses to situations, you can seek the help of a therapist who specializes in these types of therapies to support you through the process. 

People who are managing overwhelming emotions or any other type of mental health disorder often find visiting a therapist in-person to be too difficult. Others may not be able to find the time to make appointments or are limited due to physical or geographical restrictions. Online therapy is an effective option that has been shown in several studies to be just as effective as in-person therapy, with the added bonus of accessibility and comfort. 

At BetterHelp, licensed professionals are available online who can help you grow and find more joy in life by being able to identify and communicate the emotions and feelings that you are experiencing and make the right decisions for yourself.

In addition to having a sense of control over yourself, you will also be able to understand others better and help those around you. Although self-help options can be helpful, no one needs to learn how to process their emotions by themselves, and with support, more people can have happier and healthier lives.


Although the two concepts are sometimes mistakenly used as synonyms or mixed up for one another, learning the differences between feelings and emotions can be quite valuable for understanding and improving your mental health. 

Want to learn more about the psychology behind feelings and emotion? Chat with a licensed therapist today to gain a deeper understanding of the psychology behind emotion and feelings. Psychology is a valuable resource for many - whether that be developing an awareness of the impacts of psychology on your own life, or the pursuit of a deeper knowledge about psychology as a topic of interest. Whatever the case may be, understanding psychology and how it impacts our thought processes is a valuable skill.

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