Emotions and Feelings

 Have you ever asked someone how they feel and in response hear their thoughts, mental models, explanations, grocery list, to do list, etc. everything but their feelings?  It usually takes me multiple questions and perhaps an example or two before the person I’m talking to can identify an emotion. 

I’m not talking about the “How are you?” question when passing someone in the corridor or running into an acquaintance at the grocery store, in which the expedient (and hoped for) response is “fine.”

Why is it so hard for people to express their feelings?  There are so many messages in our culture that indicate it’s not okay to broach our feelings let alone communicate them to others.  The archetype of the man/woman who battles life’s trials, steadfastly putting one foot in front of the other without exhibiting any feeling but determination is rampant in our cultural zeitgeist.

And most of us weren’t taught that emotions are natural, they can be named, expressed, and fully acknowledged.  Our feelings don’t need to be feared, suppressed, ignored, shoved down, or denied.  And most importantly, our feelings are malleable.  In other words, we can change how we feel.  IF we believe that our feelings don’t control us, we can modify them.

I’m not saying that I can control my emotional reactions. I’m saying I can modify my feelings.  Wait!  Aren’t emotions and feelings the same things?  We use those words interchangeably in our conversations, but they are different.

Emotions are the automatic biological responses to a stimulant or situation of some kind. Emotions create biochemical reactions in the body and are part of the brain’s automatic survival mechanisms, generating an immediate response to threat, reward, or other stimuli. It takes ¼ of a second for an emotion to be triggered and ¼ of a second for the body to release chemicals in response.

Universal across cultures, emotions are physical and instinctual.  They are hard-wired. When we experience an emotion, chemicals and hormones are released into the brain and body and last for about 6 seconds. 

How many emotions humans experience has been a topic of debate since 1890 when William James stated there were four basic emotions:  grief, love, rage, and fear.

The debate over the number of emotions continues.  What isn’t debated is that feelings are triggered in response to an emotion.  The feelings an individual will experience is dependent upon their mental associations, memories, mental models, the story they create in their mind.

Dr. Sandra McKay, a neuroscientist explains the difference this way: 

“Emotions play out in the theater of the body.  Feelings play out in the             theater of the mind.”


Feelings triggered by emotions are idiosyncratic and based upon our life experience and our mental models.  For example, the emotion of surprise triggered by a clown face appearing unexpectedly can generate feelings of happiness and delight in one person and fear in another.

Okay, so I’ve described emotions and feelings.  What is a mood?  Emotions are triggered in response to an event or a person.  Moods however aren’t directed at a person or a situation.  They are more generalized and are less intense than emotions or feelings. 

Moods can be in response to the weather, the day of the week, our physiology (what we eat, exercise, lack of sleep, etc.) and our mental state (where we focus our attention).  Moods can last minutes, hours or days.  Moods can be shifted intentionally.

Why is it important to understand the differences between emotions, feelings, and moods?  When you understand the differences and become more literate in the language of emotions and feelings you can begin to modify your experience.  You can learn how to mindfully respond rather than unconsciously reacting.

These distinctions may seem like nit-picking. However the more you understand the differences and the sequences, the easier it will be to become more mindful about how you respond to events and people.  Stay tuned.