The Crucial Difference Between Emotions and Feelings
And three ways you can use it to transform how you experience emotions
I recently learned that the physiological lifespan of an emotion in the human body is only 90 seconds. That means that all of the physical sensations- racing heart, tense muscles, chemical surges- rise up and fade on their own in that time. If you watch a nature documentary or watch a toddler throwing a tantrum, you can see it in action. The gazelle that barely escapes the lion shakes off fear and goes about its day; the toddler who is crying his eyes out gets distracted and begins to laugh instead. The bigger question is: why don’t most of us process our emotions so effortlessly?
It’s a personal question for me because most of my childhood felt like an emotional rollercoaster. Growing up, I was constantly overwhelmed by the intensity of my emotions and the grip they had on me. When sadness hit, I was down for hours or days; when anxiety hit, I shook uncontrollably and became unable to focus on anything; anger- when I didn’t suppress it- led me into a rage. Growing up in a small New England town where emotional expression itself was taboo, I alternated between suppressing my feelings and resenting them when they burst out.
After many years of ups and downs, I discovered breathwork and somatic psychology and my life began to shift. The main cause of that shift was learning the difference between two words that most people use interchangeably: emotion and feeling.
The Space Between Emotion and Feeling
“In everyday language we often use the terms interchangeably. This shows how closely connected emotions are with feelings. But for neuroscience, emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli. When we are afraid of something, our hearts begin to race, our mouths become dry, our skin turns pale and our muscles contract. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. Feelings occur after we become aware in our brain of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of fear.” -Antonio Damasio
Emotions are common to all vertebrate animals: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. All experience the physiological changes of emotion- hormone rushes, heart rate changes, muscle activation- to one degree or another. What is distinctly human is what happens as the sensations of an emotion occur. Unlike other animals, the human minds labels an emotion with a name and interprets it. If a person’s heart rate speeds up before a meeting for example, the sensations are soon given a label like “anxiety,” the anxiety is fit into a story, and that story is interpreted within a culture, where its value is either promoted or rejected.
In that way, a 90 second emotion becomes a feeling that takes on a life of its own and can derail us over time.
The critical point is this: An emotion is fundamentally a sensation. The label we give it, the interpretation we offer, and the value we assign it is how we turn a physical sensation into a feeling, with all the baggage it entails. But as an emotion becomes a feeling, we have the opportunity to make choices and influence the result. Here are the three biggest choices we can make:
#1: What we call it (or whether we call it anything)
For most people, the transition from an emotion to a feeling is instant. A sensation arises and is instantly recognized as anxiety, sadness, and so on. But what if you could change the feeling associated with a sensation- or even better, not associate it with anything at all?
Surprisingly, changing the relationship between sensations and feelings is not as hard as it sounds, and can lead to a major change in experience. Take for example anxiety and excitement: one is considered negative and the other positive, but both are arousal emotions with similar sensations and physiology, inseparable to a scientist looking at your brain scans as they occur. Pain and pleasure are also closely linked in the brain as well, as practices like BDSM show.
Not only can the same sensations be linked to different feelings but given the way our brains work, we can ultimately link sensations with whatever feelings we want. This ability is what writer and adventurer Scott Carney calls “The Wedge:”
“If you can alter or bond new sensations to emotions, then you can insert a level of control directly into the fundamental grammar of your brain as you create new symbols. Instead of passively waiting for emotional states to bond with particular sensations, you can choose which emotions you want to hardwire into your nervous system. By giving yourself intense sensations at the same time you have a mindset of joy or determination or whatever else, you give the limbic librarian more symbols to draw from in future situations (Carney, 47).”
Though there are major benefits to using “The Wedge,” an even more fundamental approach that I’ve learned through practicing breathwork is to not label a sensation at all. This means that when emotion arises- with the trembling, racing heart, and whatever else it brings- focus on the physical sensations. Don’t label them as “anger” or “sadness” or think about their cause. By allowing the sensations to arise like a wave and viewing them with curiosity, you let them run their course. Like a gazelle or toddler, you learn to let experience run through you in 90 seconds.
#2: Whether we use it to create a story
One of the biggest risks as emotions become feelings is that they will become part of a personal story. As a college student, I often became intensely anxious before exams because thoughts like, “I’m nervous” transformed into: “that I’ll fail, and get a D on my permanent record and no one will hire me and maybe I’m not cut out for research and…” What could have been a 90 second wave of anxiety spiraled into panic making it impossible for me to think clearly.
Psychology techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focus exclusively on these inner thoughts, which are referred to as cognitive distortions, because they’re so destructive over time. Listen to a friend telling you how he or she is feeling and along with the feeling itself, there will often be phrases like “this always happens” or “I should have…” Phrases like these tend to create feedback loops, leading back to the same behavior over and over. Think of a woman who cheats on her diet for one day: with a thought like “I’m disappointed in myself because I always do this,” she’ll likely give up her effort completely.
If there’s any positive side to the stories that accompany feelings, it’s that they reflect our worldview back at us. When I noticed persistent patterns of sadness and anger in my life, I was able to notice recurrent thoughts and belief that fed them, like “My friends are all so far away” or “I always get treated this way!” Feelings became my clues to deep-seated beliefs, often carried over from childhood. Once I was able to see and challenge those beliefs, I could begin to dismantle them and build evidence for new beliefs in their place.
#3: What culture we experience it in
One of the most important- and subtle- influences on our emotional health is the culture we live in and what it values.
I found this out by accident when I escaped Manhattan for a meditation retreat a few years ago. After a particularly relaxing meditation one afternoon, I felt the urge to grab a cup of coffee. The woman next to me looked over curiously and said, “Is it possible that you’re confusing relaxation with exhaustion?” And stopped and realized to my own surprise that she was right. After two years of living in New York City, working and living at full speed, I had lost touch with the feeling of relaxation. I got used to treating any state of low energy as a sign that I needed to rally and prop myself up with caffeine. As psychologist Emma Seppälä notes, “Research shows that we — especially Westerners, and Americans in particular — thrive on high-intensity positive emotions… But high-intensity positive emotions can also be taxing.”
Though my experience was particular to New York City, it shows that we often shift our emotional states based on what’s valued in our culture, geographically and socially. To give an even more extreme example, consider one of the most uncomfortable feelings in our culture: shame. As psychologist Marianna Pogosyan shares:
“…People in many Western contexts may think of shame as a bad emotion. But shame is considered a good emotion in other cultures — it is in one category with modesty and embarrassment and these feelings show that you have propriety, that you know your place in the world… In our (Western) cultures, shame is often associated with behaviors that are destructive for the relationship: We withdraw in shame, we don’t want to show ourselves. But in other cultures, it’s an emotion that comes with reaching out to others — it repairs relationships.”
The impact of culture is important to understand because it allows us to find the places and people that allow us to express ourselves most fully. When I became conscious of the effect that being a New Yorker was having on my mental and emotional health, I headed West to California. And while it’s not always possible to choose location, I’ve found that by finding friends I’m comfortable expressing myself fully around, I can create the type of culture I want to live in.
The human mind is both a gift and a curse, in many ways. It is what sits between the physiology of our emotions and the experience of our feelings. Though it has led many of us into periods of depression or anxiety, it also gives us the opportunity to shape our experience when we know how. With that ability, we can turn anxiety into excitement, pain into pleasure, and even shame into connection.