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Distinguishing Emotions from Feelings: A Look at Two Essential Parts of the Human Experience

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Emotions and feelings are fundamental aspects of what makes us human. The terms are often used together in everyday conversation. However, psychologists note essential differences between these two phenomena.

Understanding this distinction can provide critical insight into the workings of the human mind and pathways for personal growth.

Emotions: Involuntary Reactions to Significant Events

According to psychologists, emotions arise involuntarily in response to meaningful events or stimuli. They represent complex changes in physiological arousal, motor expression (e.g., facial expressions), and subjective experience. Emotions are generated rapidly and automatically by subcortical regions of the brain, such as the amygdala and other limbic system structures.

Emotional reactions originate unconsciously and involuntarily, allowing individuals to respond quickly to significant events in the environment. This ability confers an evolutionary advantage, allowing humans and other animals to react instantly to threats and opportunities.

Universal Emotions and Signals

Research by pioneering psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen found that humans exhibit at least six basic emotions across all cultures:

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

Studies of isolated preliterate tribes showed that even groups with no outside contact could readily identify these emotions when shown photographs of corresponding facial expressions. Not only are certain emotions universal, but the expressions associated with them may also constitute a universal signaling system.

For example, across cultures, a disgusted facial expression often accompanies a “yuck” vocalization in response to unpleasant smells or tastes. Smiling and laughter also constitute innate social signals found in populations worldwide.

Social and Cultural Influences on Emotions

While some emotions may be universal, social and cultural factors can shape emotional experiences. Cultural values and norms influence which emotions are acceptable to express openly.

Socialization impacts how people regulate emotions. Trauma and adverse events in childhood affect emotional development. Overall, the sociocultural environment interacts with biology to inform the emotions individuals experience and display.

Feelings: Conscious Reactions to Emotions

In contrast to emotions, feelings are subjective conscious experiences based on perceptions of internal body states. According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, feelings emerge from neural processes that give meaning to emotions. The underlying emotions generate involuntary changes in the body and brain, which are then consciously interpreted as specific feelings.

The Nature of Feelings

  • Subjective conscious experiences based on perceptions of internal body states
  • Arise from neural processes that assign meaning to emotions
  • More nuanced and variable than emotions

For instance, danger may trigger an unconscious emotional response of fear, including increased heart rate, tensed muscles, and alert brain activity. The brain then consciously processes these reactions to create the feeling of being afraid.

Additionally, two people may have the same fearful emotional response to a stimulus but attach different meanings to the experience based on individual differences, producing distinct fear-associated feelings.

Emotions Shape Feelings and Vice Versa

This interplay between emotion and feeling goes both ways. Emotions can generate feelings, as when a frightening event sparks a feeling of terror. However, existing feelings can also shape emotional responses. For example, a preexisting fear of spiders (arachnophobia) may cause some individuals to feel disgust when they encounter one.

Interplay Between Emotions and Feelings

These associations can create feedback loops reinforcing emotional reactions and associated feelings. Identifying and becoming aware of these loops represents an opportunity to exercise conscious control over emotions and make positive changes.

Cultivating Self-Awareness of Emotions and Feelings

Developing awareness of one’s emotional reactions and resulting feelings is an important step in regulating this process. To build this self-understanding, it can be helpful to focus internally and take note of physical signs of emotions, like heart rate and temperature changes.

By tuning into bodily responses, individuals can detect associated feelings and their triggers. This heightened consciousness empowers people to consider their emotions objectively and then choose how to respond in healthy, productive ways rather than reacting automatically.

Therapeutic Modalities Target Emotion Regulation

For some individuals plagued by overwhelming emotions, professional assistance facilitates the journey toward self-awareness and regulation of feelings. Approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy help clients recognize emotional patterns and reframe thoughts, while dialectical behavior therapy focuses directly on enhancing emotional coping skills.

Therapy provides a valuable space for understanding and constructively working through challenging emotions and feelings. An experienced therapist helps clients identify unproductive patterns, trace their roots, and develop healthier responses.

Through guided self-reflection, trying new coping techniques, and receiving objective feedback, individuals can gain control over overwhelming feelings. Clients also learn to become more aware of their emotions in the moment, understand associated triggers, and intentionally cultivate more adaptive reactions.

Applications to Mental Health Treatment

Distinguishing emotions and feelings has important clinical implications. Assessment tools can identify problematic emotional regulation patterns.

Treatment focuses on building:

  • self-awareness
  • coping skills
  • cognitive restructuring

Group therapy explores how social dynamics impact emotions. Couples counseling examines each partner’s emotional landscape.


Recognizing the distinct role of emotions versus feelings is a crucial step in the study and promotion of mental health. Although often used interchangeably in casual conversation, these terms have precise, differentiated meanings in psychological theory and practice. Awareness of emotions generates feelings, which influence future emotions – for better or worse.

Individuals can gain control over this process by disrupting maladaptive cycles through self-knowledge and clinical support. Understanding the difference between feelings and emotions empowers people to consciously shape their inner experiences and, in turn, their perceptions, behaviors, and relationships. Mindfully navigating this terrain enriches both intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning.


About the Author: Helen Kaminski – As an advocate and writer focusing on mental health, I use my personal experiences and academic knowledge to educate and inspire others through my work in person and online. In my free time, I love yoga, nature walks, reading, volunteering at an animal shelter, and watching movies. As a lead editor on therapyhelpers.com, my writing aims to break down mental health stigma and help others feel understood.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/collage-of-portraits-of-cheerful-woman-3807758/

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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