Feelings V. Emotions: Is There A Difference Between Them?
Updated August 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers
People often use “feelings” and “emotion” interchangeably, and although they are both human traits, there are some differences between them that you probably didn’t know about. In this article, you’ll learn how to differentiate between feelings vs. emotion and have a better understanding of how the human mind works.
To better understand the differences between feelings and emotions, it’s easier to begin by describing what emotions are.
Emotions originate in the subcortical region, the amygdala, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices, which cause biochemical reactions to occur and change our physical state. 
You may have heard of the “fight-or-flight” response before, where when faced with danger or any stressful event, you will experience symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart or sweating.
This is a form of basic emotion, and it’s deeply ingrained in the genetic code in humans because it has helped us survive as a species. However, we can also experience similar emotions when being rewarded or simply by interacting with the environment we live in. 
Because emotions are basically a neurochemical reaction from a stimulus, they are also considered to be unconscious and instinctive.  It is possible to bring these emotions out into consciousness through psychotherapy, though. 
According to psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, there are six basic emotions that all humans can experience. These emotional responses are:
This was determined based on conducting research on the isolated Fori tribe in Papua New Guinea in the early 1970s. When presented with images of the faces that are associated with these emotions, the tribal members were able to correctly identify their corresponding emotions. 
Afterward, they continued emotion research by taking pictures of the Fori performing these facial expressions and showing them to other cultures around the world, and the results were exactly the same. 
In addition to these six basic emotions and universal facial expressions, there are often sounds that can 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 emotions have also been observed in non-human primates, especially the great apes.
In contrast to emotions, feelings originate in the neocortical region of the brain, and they are reactions to the emotions.  Feelings form when your brain assigns a meaning to the emotional experience that you are having.
Because they are based on an emotional experience, feelings 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’re feeling disgusted.
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’re injured, you can feel pain, or if you haven’t eaten all day, you’re bound to feel hungry at some point.
All of this indicates that feelings are something that is noticed at the conscious level, and according to Antonio Damasio, who is a professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, feelings are mental experiences of body states and arise as your brain interprets the subconscious emotions. 
Unlike emotions, feelings are completely conscious, and this is one of the key differences between them. However, not all conscious experiences are feelings necessarily; you are aware of what you’re seeing or hearing, or any of the primary senses, but they aren’t feelings. 
Although they are two separate concepts, as you can see, they aren’t unrelated to each other by any means, and in the next section, you will learn more how feelings and emotions can intertwine with each other.
How Feelings and Emotions Are Related
Your brain has to assign a meaning to these emotions in order to create a feeling, but it can also go the other way around, too, depending on the experiences you’re being 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 don’t 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.
Your emotions 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, your feelings can cause you to pursue things because you expect a positive emotional response.
However, emotions tend to be temporary, and as mentioned before, feelings can be much more persistent and people might 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 have a significant impact on 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 feelings will be necessary to make any changes.
Making a Positive Change: Understanding Your Emotions & 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.
In order to do this, you will need to develop a sense of awareness, and there are multiple ways to do this, but one of the most straightforward ways to do this is to pay attention to the physical sensations, 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’ll be able to figure out the causes of them, make a conscious thought, and then you can take action 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.
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. 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 vs. emotions can be quite valuable for understanding and improving your mental health. Hopefully, this article has helped clarify it for you, so that you can potentially change your life for the better.
- Hampton, D. (2015, January 12). What’s The Difference Between Feelings And Emotions? Retrieved from https://thebestbrainpossible.com/whats-the-difference-between-feelings-and-emotions/
- Farnsworth, B. (2020, April 14). How to Measure Emotions and Feelings (And the Difference Between Them). Retrieved from https://imotions.com/blog/difference-feelings-emotions/
- Wake Forest University. (2019, September 12). The Difference Between Feelings and Emotions. Retrieved from https://counseling.online.wfu.edu/blog/difference-feelings-emotions/
- Management Mania. (2016, January 21). Six Basic Emotions. Retrieved from https://managementmania.com/en/six-basic-emotions
- Ekman, P. (1999). 3. Basic Emotions. In Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (pp. 45–57). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. doi: 10.1002/0470013494