Feelings Vs. Emotions: Is There A Difference

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated August 2, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

People often use the terms “feelings” and “emotions” interchangeably, believing they mean the same when discussing subjects that regard the human experience. In psychology, however, they have distinct meanings despite interconnective relativity. 

Feelings are a self-contained phenomenal experience often judged as either pleasant or unpleasant experiences. Contrarily, 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. To understand the human mind, it can be helpful to understand these two psychological concepts.

Feelings And Emotions Are Distinct Parts Of Ourselves

What Are Emotions In Psychology? 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), emotions are complex reactional patterns arising in an individual due to a significant 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 often involve feelings but are implicitly engaged with the world around you. They 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 causes changes in one’s physical and emotional state. 

The “fight-or-flight” response when faced with danger or stress is a basic human emotional response ingrained in each person’s genetic code. This emotion became widespread because it has helped humans and other mammals survive as species. However, the body can have many other emotional responses, including during pleasurable or enjoyable circumstances. 

Because these inclinations are a neurochemical reaction from a stimulus, they are also considered unconscious and instinctive.  

The Psychology Of Emotions 

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

  • Happiness

  • Sadness

  • Fear

  • Disgust

  • Anger

  • Surprise

These emotions were determined based on 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 associated with each emotional state, the tribe could identify the emotions on the faces similarly to other societies. Afterward, the researchers continued emotional research by taking pictures of the Southern Fore and Kukukuku performing these facial expressions and showing them to other cultures worldwide. The results were the same. 

In addition to the six universal facial expressions, sounds may also be universal. For instance, if presented with a foul-smelling odor, humans may make a disgusted facial reaction paired with a “yuck” sound or equivalent in another language to express that they are offended. This verbal expression is known as universal human signaling

Another example of a universal emotional signal is smiling and laughing. Smiling and laughter are often paired together in multiple cultures throughout the world. However, it is not required that everyone shows these signs. People can still experience emotions internally without outwardly showing them. Regardless, emotions can be essential in human interaction and relationships and have had a crucial role in the evolution of the species, also observed in non-human primates, such as apes. 

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. Feelings form when your brain assigns meaning to the emotional experience that you are having.

Because they are based on an emotional experience, they can be subjective and vary from person to person. Looking at the six universal emotions, you can attach the words feel, felt, or feeling to any of them. For example, you can feel happy or angry. However, these feelings are more specific than broad emotional responses and may encompass more variety. 

How Are Feelings More Specific Than Emotions? 

Feelings can become more specific than emotional responses and may also be brought up due to your physical reactions. Pain and hunger are a couple of examples of this occurrence.  If you are injured, you can feel pain. If you have not eaten during the day, you may feel hungry. In addition, you might feel angry if you’re hungry for a long time. 

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 your 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. However, not all conscious experiences are necessarily feelings. You may be aware of what you are seeing or hearing without your awareness being a feeling. Although feelings differ slightly from emotions, they do have similarities. 

How To Determine The Differences Between Feelings And Emotions

Your brain may assign meaning to your moods to create a feeling but can also do the opposite, depending on the experiences you have been exposed to. For example, arachnophobia (the fear of spiders) can be an example. At some point in your life, you may have had a negative experience with a spider, causing you to fear them in the future. 

This innate phobia and emotional state can also be paired with feelings like fear and disgust. Your moods can affect your behaviors, allowing feelings towards them to persist. You can actively try to avoid spiders or avoid thinking about them to prevent an unwanted emotional response, creating more fear. 

Similarly, these emotional responses can cause you to pursue a behavior or situation because you expect a positive emotional response. However, moods are often temporary and emotional responses can be persistent. This process can create a cycle of emotions that incite negative feelings, which cause more emotions. 

Because your emotions and feelings significantly impact your behaviors, they can influence how you interact with the world, potentially inspiring unhealthy or healthy behaviors. Since they shape your behaviors, becoming aware of these emotions and fully understanding your emotional responses can be beneficial in making changes. 

Self-Awareness As A Vehicle For Change

To change your emotional responses, it may be beneficial to work toward a sense of self-awareness. One way to develop an awareness of your emotions is to pay attention to the physical sensations that occur after a stimulus, such as your heartbeat or temperature.

These physical sensations are the only way to measure emotions in studies. For instance, pupil dilation through eye tracking, heart rate with electrocardiography (ECG), or facial expressions can give others an objective measurement of emotions because they are bodily reactions as well as feelings. 

When you develop an awareness of your emotions and feelings, you can navigate the world around you more freely. You may be able to figure out the causes, make a conscious thought, and act in healthier ways. You can choose to respond, react, or ignore situations that cause an emotion to arise, potentially leading to a more positive lifestyle.

Getty/Luis Alvarez
Feelings And Emotions Are Distinct Parts Of Ourselves

Finding Professional Support

While spending time on your own to develop an awareness of your emotional reactions and associated feelings is possible, you may feel that working with a professional offers you an outside perspective that helps you more objectively understand. Whether you have a mental health condition or want to learn more about your feelings, a therapist can be a valuable resource.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are two therapeutic modalities that target emotional dysregulation. If you are struggling with overwhelming emotions or do not understand why you are experiencing intense emotional responses to situations, you might choose to seek the help of a therapist who specializes in these modalities to support you through the process. 

People living with overwhelming emotions or mental health conditions may sometimes find visiting a therapist in-person too challenging. Others may be unable to find the time to make appointments or are limited due to physical or geographical restrictions. Online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can also be an effective option, proven in several studies to be as effective as in-person therapy, with the added benefits of accessibility and comfort. Through an online platform, you can also choose between phone, video, or chat sessions, allowing you control over how you receive care. 

Takeaway

Although the two concepts are sometimes mistakenly used as synonyms, learning the differences between feelings and emotions can be valuable in understanding and improving mental health. To further understand these concepts, consider contacting a licensed therapist for guidance and support.

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