The Difference between Emotions and Feelings
“Emotions play out in the theatre of the body. Feelings play out in the theatre of the mind.” –Dr. Sarah McKay, Neuroscientist
Although the two words are often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between feelings and emotions. For starters, they originate in different parts of the brain.
Your emotions are primal and instinctive, and stem from our limbic system, which also happens to be where your chimp lives. They have been programmed into our genes over many years of evolution and are hard-wired. Their general purpose is to produce a specific response to a stimulus. For example, you’re walking down a dark alley, and realise someone is following you. You instantly go into flight or fight mode. You feel threatened, experience fear (the emotion) and feel horror (the feeling).
Your feelings are sparked by your emotions and coloured by the thoughts, memories, and images that have become subconsciously linked with that particular emotion for you. You have probably seen plenty of scenes on TV where people are attacked after being followed down dark alleys, so your brain has linked this experience with horror. And quite rightly so!
And it can work the other way around too. For example, just thinking about something threatening can trigger an emotional fear response. While individual emotions are temporary, the feelings they evoke often persist and grow over a lifetime.
Because emotions cause subconscious feelings, which in turn initiate emotions, your life can become a never-ending cycle of painful and confusing emotions and feelings. Negative feelings cause more negative emotions. And around and around it goes.
There is good news: Nothing you can ever experience in life, no matter how terrible, will ever be anything more than a bunch of thoughts, plus a few physical sensations. Can you handle that? I think so.
Although we use the term “negative” or “bad” emotions, in reality, emotions are neither good or bad. They just are what they are. It’s the way we allow those emotions to play out that can be harmful or destructive.