Developing Emotional Understanding, Part 1

The broader and deeper our understanding of emotions and feelings, the better we are able to communicate about them, process them, and adjust how we respond to them. Things get muddled quickly, because most of us use the ideas of “emotions” and “feelings” interchangeably. While “emotions” and “feelings” are related, they are very distinctly different. One of the keys to building our emotional lexicon is to clearly understand the difference between the two ideas.

Limbic System

Before we dive into emotions and feelings, let’s have a quick lesson on the brain. The Limbic System is a complex system of nerves and networks inside the brain, between the outer cerebral hemispheres and the brain stem. Some of the structures in the Limbic System are:

  • Thalamus – a relay station between the senses and cortex; associated with changes in emotional reactivity
  • Basal Ganglia – organizes motor behavior; coordinates rule-based, habit learning
  • Hypothalamus – associated with changes in emotional reactivity; releases hormones
  • Amygdala – emotion center of the brain, recognizes threats, involved in emotional memory
  • Hippocampus – essential to formation of long-term memories / episodic memories; response inhibition; spatial cognition.

Also included in this diagram is the Cerebral Cortex. This is the outer layer of gray matter, separated into two hemispheres, full of folds. It has four different lobes: frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital. This outer layer is where we process sensory information and where higher-level brain functions happen, such as perception, thought, language, and consciousness.

Defining “Emotions”

Emotions are lower-level responses coming from a primitive part of ourselves – the Limbic System. This is sometimes called the “lizard brain” because that’s essentially all lizards have for a brain. Emotions helped us survive the wild world by quickly reacting to threats, reward, etc. These primitive, lower-level responses are coded in our genes and they trigger survival behaviors. Emotions are universally similar among all humans; they are innate; they are automatic; they are fast and brief.

Emotions are a physical/chemical reaction to some stimuli.

Emotions <—> Body

Defining “Feelings”

What most people call emotions are actually feelings. Feelings are reactions to an emotion. They originate from the Cerebral Cortex, meaning our reaction is shaped by personal experience, beliefs, and memories. “A feeling is a mental portrayal of what is going on in your body when you have an emotion and is the byproduct of your brain perceiving and assigning meaning to the emotion.”

Our brain has to process what is going on around and within us so we can figure out what triggered that emotion and what our next move is.

Feelings are thoughts responding to a physical change in our body.

Feelings <—> Mind

Why Does This Distinction Matter?

If we are cognizant of what has actually caught our attention and why, then we can have a suitable response.

Am I calmly responding to a short-lived, minor physical response that happened automatically as a means of letting me know that something might need to be addressed?

Or, am I blind to the reality of the situation because my perspective has been clouded by my on-going negative thoughts, worry, and distrust so I misread the initial trigger, blow it out of proportion, and react in an irrational way?

For example, a few minutes after leaving for work, I think that I may have left my house unlocked.

With the former type of response, I experience a twinge of concern. First, I take a moment to try to recall my steps to see if I can confirm for myself if I did or not lock the door. I still can’t remember, so I calmly go through the pros and cons of the door being unlocked, various ways I might solve the problem, and consider the likelihood that it will be fine regardless. I also realize I’m only a few minutes away from home and I can just turn back at the next exit.

With the latter type of reaction, I feel a huge rush of worry. I have a hard time distinguishing between different levels of an emotion, so maybe what was actually a twinge of concern feels like a knife to the gut. I curse at myself for being so stupid. I immediately recall how terrible it felt when my house was broken into years before. My heart rate speeds up, my breathing gets shallow, my muscles tense up. I start to imagine my neighbor going into my house because he saw I didn’t lock the door. I remember I left my rent money on the coffee table, and envision my neighbor taking it. I have to stop this from happening! If I don’t jump the median to turn back now and speed all the way home, then I’ll lose everything and get evicted for not having rent money any more!!!

In the first situation, my response is measured, options are weighed, and I stay rational. My breathing and heart rates never changed. The problem was resolved with only having lost a few minutes of drive time. No big deal. Just a minor inconvenience.

In the second situation, I had an extreme reaction that was WAY larger and more intense than what was merited by the initial trigger. My reaction was rooted in pre-existing worry and fear and a bad memory. More worry and fear was generated until I felt panic and decided to make an unsafe choice in order to resolve the situation. My reaction didn’t match the trigger and it ended up making the entire situation worse.

By learning the difference between emotions and feelings we are better equipped to change or stop intrusive thoughts, adjust our behaviors, feel more balanced, and have a more positive experience, overall. This holds true no matter what is going on around us.

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