Do you understand the difference between emotions and feelings? You might think they are synonymous, but this is not the case. Emotions are physical and common to all human beings and many animals. Feelings are mental projections associated with an emotion – and the way they manifest are very personal.
By understanding the difference between these two words, you can change behaviours that are deeply rooted in yourself. You can break out of an unhealthy cycle of emotions and feelings that might stop you from living a more peaceful and happier life. You will become more understandable and it will be easier for you to take things into perspective in any conflict with other people.
In the subcortical regions (early structures) of vertebrate animals – the deepest parts of our brains – we find a small link to our past: the amygdala. It is associated with emotional responses to external stimuli. Among other things, it was designed to prepare our bodies to fight or to flee at the sign of a danger by triggering biochemical reactions in our bodies. The way our amygdala operates is no different from that of monkeys, rats and some other mammals.
When the amygdalae are damaged, for example, one loses the ability to discern emotions, particularly fear and anger when expressed in another’s face or intoned in another’s voice. We respond quickly to emotions, sometimes so unconsciously that we end up doing or saying things so fast that we don’t have enough time to think.
The human neocortex is visibly bigger and more folded than that of other animals. We have developed the front part of our cerebral cortex, the frontal lobes and the association areas, which are responsible for synthesizing and integrating sensory information. In the frontal lobes we also analyse the past and prepare for the future. Based on the information received from the senses, we make decisions and reflect upon them. To sum up, the frontal cortex is involved in executive functions and the expression of personality. The enlarged frontal cortex in humans can modulate emotional impulses generated in the amygdalae. This is where feelings emerge.
Emotions are common to us all as well as other species (for example, we can emotionally interact with dogs). Emotions manifest in the body and can be measured (blood pressure, oxygen and glucose flow, facial expressions, body language, etc.). Emotions are printed on our DNA and have been useful in order to keep us protected from dangerous situations, where survival was necessary. Our emotional responses can prepare our legs to run, our arms to fight; they can freeze our whole body to make sure that a “predator” does not notice us. At the same time, strong and chaotic emotions can be detrimental to our physical and mental health.
Emotions have been useful to increase our wakefulness and the resulting alertness and attention, creating for sexual excitement in order to reproduce, and avoiding unwanted situations. Emotions interact with different areas of our brain, especially our hippocampus (where long-term memory is stored). That’s why emotional memories are usually difficult to break (trauma, for example).
Our emotional patterns are reflected externally in events. For example, if we are unaware of the fear, anger or disgust we carry, the outer world will manifest itself in a way that we are attracted by and/or we attract other people carrying the same patterns as we do. Have you noticed that?
Basically, emotions are: fear (freeze, run), anger (react, fight), arousal (reproduce, attract), disgust (avoid).
Feelings are a thought process; they reflect our personal associations to emotions – the other side of the coin, in a sense. Feelings take place in the neocortical brain and represent mental projections or reactions to our emotions. Because feelings are mental and individual, they cannot be measured.
Emotions, when analysed and judged, initiate feelings and feelings in turn can trigger emotions – a never ending cycle. This may result in a downward spiral of confused, negative memories and thoughts, which causes additional emotional response. For example, recalling a bad memory might trigger an emotion in which the whole body feels uneasy. Emotions are temporary, but the feelings that they bring can be stored in the memory and persist for a long time. The mind can revive that body sensation from time to time.
The more we feel, analyse, judge and rationalise, the more we feed the “emotional body”.
Have you ever felt strong sensations in your body due to the discomfort of meeting a certain person again? This is an example of your feelings triggering an emotional response. Most of the time, these processes are subconscious and, since we are unaware of them, we suffer for reasons we do not understand. I call this “fabricated emotion”.
Feelings can be diverse. Feeling happy, for example, can trigger arousal (as well as arousal can trigger happiness). Feeling tired, sad or irritated can trigger anger. Feeling insecure, jealous, or guilty can trigger fear, anger, or disgust.
Accepting and letting go
The way we give attention to our emotions is extremely important. There’s nothing else we can do but accept the sensations in our bodies without feeding any thoughts that immediately come into our minds. Understanding the difference between responding and reacting is important if we wish to change the way we behave. In life, there are things we can change and other things we have absolutely no control over, but serenity or suffering are a voluntary choice. The same conditions experienced without suffering by one person can mean absolute misery to another.
A practical exercise to observe our emotions and feelings:
– Feel the energy of the emotion as it manifests in the physical body.
– Take a few deep breaths – this will slow down your brainwaves.
Before you react to an emotion:
– Ask yourself:
– What’s going on inside me (body/mind) at this moment?
– Is this thought/feeling creating the body sensation or is the emotion being reflected as a feeling in the mind? In order words, is it a fabricated emotion, or an actual one?
– If there is a conflict between what your body feels and what your mind feels, the body is telling you the truth and the mind is trying to create stories to protect you.
– Observe the feeling associated with that emotion
– Don’t identify with it; observe how the mind is quick in creating a voice, saying “I am feeling.” The more you identify with your thinking, feelings and judgments, the stronger your emotional response will be. You are boosting it even more with your mind.
– Don’t judge, or overanalyse it, don’t make stories out of it; observe the body sensation and the mind’s voice as it is.
– If you mind tries to step in and rationalize the situation, come back to your breath
– Don’t suppress it, just watch as it passes by.
By practicing this, we are bringing light into our consciousness; we become more aware of unconscious patterns and learn not to react when our feelings fabricate emotions. We will no longer get frustrated when things don’t go the way we expected, or get angry at people or situations. By being aware of our feelings and how they trigger emotions, and how to sense our emotions without identifying with them and turning into feelings and thoughts – thus creating resistance and shaping an “emotional body” – we practice acceptance and gratitude. We view these challenging moments as opportunities for growth. In the end, what counts is just the way we decide to respond to the outer world. Either we give our feelings mental and physical energy by reacting to them, or we discipline ourselves to respond to them properly, staying focused and grounded in our being.