We often use the words ‘emotions’ and ‘feelings’ interchangeably.
However, delving into their details and understanding the difference between them can greatly benefit our mental health.
The way we think and behave impacts our everyday life.
Once we learn how emotions and feelings emerge, we can organise our thoughts better. Here is how these two concepts can be unpacked:
The human brain consists of different layers, just like an onion. The brain stem is the initial layer, which is responsible for our body’s basic functions, such as breathing, sleeping, eating and regulating the heart rate.
The next layer is the mid brain, which regulates motor movements, and auditory and visual processing. The brain stem and the mid brain together perform bodily functions that we don’t usually think much about, such as transferring oxygen from the lungs to the blood, breaking down food into energy and waste, and hair growth.
The limbic system comprises the third layer of the brain. It is a set of structures which handle emotions and memory. It regulates the behavioural and emotional responses, including taking care of the young, and fight, flight, or freeze.
The final layer of the brain is the frontal cortex. This is where we attach meaning to emotions, make rational decisions, and form strategies. The frontal cortex manages higher cognitive functions like impulse control, problem-solving, and social interaction.
Difference between Emotions and Feelings
The limbic system plays a crucial role in connecting the mind and the body. It behaves as a control centre for conscious and unconscious thoughts and acts as a bridge between psychological and physiological experiences.
Emotions are our compass as they drive us psychologically. They are essentially chemical responses that we have no control over. For example, when you feel down, you are likely to become lethargic and experience a dip in your productivity level.
The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for making rational decisions, planning and strategising. The brain stem first captures information and the information then travels all the way up to the limbic system.
The limbic system gets emotionally charged and sends signals to the frontal cortex, which is where we give meaning to our emotions.
Humans are basically meaning-making machines.
It is impossible for us to fully experience our emotions without attaching meanings to them. For instance, try describing the word ‘hot’ any other way.
You may come up with adjectives such as scalding, steaming, or boiling, which are quite close but still unable to capture the essence of hot.
This simple example shows the important role of language in giving our emotions a meaning.
The crux of this article is to explain the distinguishing features of emotions and feelings so that you are able to direct your thoughts and actions in a better way. By knowing that you are in charge of attaching meaning to your emotions, you can control your feelings.
Consider another example where you spot a friend across the street as you walk along. You wave to them, but they do not respond. This is sure to trigger a rush of emotions to your head and get your frontal cortex in action.
Such reaction from a friend may make you think that they were being rude, which can lead to feelings of inferiority within you. This may cause a negative cycle where you begin thinking that something is wrong with you and start searching for evidence.
A better way to tackle your emotions and feelings is to attach a positive meaning to the scenario. You can consider the possibility that they were daydreaming and possibly did not see you waving. Reflect on a similar past situation where your own thoughts had drifted away and you missed obvious signals.
Consciously attributing positive meanings to everyday situations is the trick to keep your mental health enhanced in the long-run. If you seek some more positive tips, visit my website and check out One on One Coaching and Inner Work podcasts.