The Difference Between Feelings and Emotions

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Emotions and feelings are all traits we share as humans. According to an article in the publication Psychology Today, “emotions are multi-faceted experiences” of “internal subjective experiences, facial expressions and physiological reactions.” Teasing out the feelings and emotions that people have, and learning why they have them, is an important role for mental health professionals.

Those interested in exploring the difference between feelings and emotions — and understanding the mind, human behavior, and strategic ways of helping mental health patients — usually complete advanced programs of study such as a master’s in counseling. This education is necessary to understand the difference between feelings and emotions from a clinical perspective. Let’s explore that difference, along with how emotions can impact daily life for many individuals.

Feelings versus Emotions

Many people use the terms “feeling” and “emotion” as synonyms, but they are not interchangeable. While they have similar elements, there is a marked difference between feelings and emotions.

Feelings. Both emotional experiences and physical sensations — such as hunger or pain — bring about feelings, according to Psychology Today. Feelings are a conscious experience, although not every conscious experience, such as seeing or believing, is a feeling, as explained in the article.

Emotions. According to Psychology Today, an emotion “can only ever be felt…through the emotional experiences it gives rise to, even though it might be discovered through its associated thoughts, beliefs, desires, and actions.” Emotions are not conscious but instead manifest in the unconscious mind. These emotions can be brought to the surface of the conscious state through extended psychotherapy.

A fundamental difference between feelings and emotions is that feelings are experienced consciously, while emotions manifest either consciously or subconsciously. Some people may spend years, or even a lifetime, not understanding the depths of their emotions.

Range of Emotions

Throughout life, humans experience many emotions. This range of emotions is impacted by such factors as their behavior, the culture they come from, and their previous traumatic experiences.

How Emotions Impact Behavior

According to a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Review (PSPR), emotion is a “feedback system whose influence on behavior is indirect.” While according to the PSPR study, the behavior is used to “pursue (or avoid) anticipated emotional outcomes,” behavior also “provides feedback and stimulating retrospective appraisal of actions, conscious emotional states [which] can promote learning and alter guidelines for future behavior.”

How Culture Shapes Emotions

According to an article from the Association for Psychological Science (APS), research conducted by APS Fellow Jeanne Tsai at Stanford University shows most people want to “feel more positive than negative.” Yet the emotions that cause a positive experience are shown to change between cultures, according to the APS article. For example, the positive emotions that “European Americans typically preferred [were] excitement and elation” while Chinese populations “preferred calm and relaxation more.” This difference is seen in media such as advertising, which utilizes the positive experience emotions to craft messages for maximum impact.

How Traumatic Experiences Impact Emotions

Traumatic experiences impact emotions both in the moment and over the long term. According to Psychology Today, “whatever the source, trauma leaves its imprint on the brain.” For example, a study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews found a link between greater brain activity in areas that process fear and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to Psychology Today, traumatic experiences impact our emotions, causing PTSD flashbacks, nightmares and increased fear, anxiety, anger, sadness and guilt.

The Next Step in the Mental Health Journey

Learning the difference between feelings and emotions is vital knowledge for any professionals in the mental health field. Advanced education programs, such as Wake Forest University’s Online Master’s in Counseling is specifically designed to help professionals gain the knowledge and experience for a fulfilling and successful career. Discover today if a master’s degree in counseling is the right choice for you.

Recommended Reading

How to Improve Mental Health on a Daily Basis

Treatment, Therapy and Stress Management Techniques to Help Deal with Anxiety

Helping Students Thrive: The Role of a School Counselor


Association for Psychological Science, “Emotions in Context: What We Know About How We Feel”

Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, “Neurocircuitry models of posttraumatic stress disorder and beyond: A meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies”

Personality and Social Psychology Review, “How Emotion Shapes Behavior: Feedback, Anticipation, and Reflection, Rather Than Direct Causation”

Psychology Today, “Can Emotions Be Controlled?”

Psychology Today, “21 Common Reactions to Trauma”

Psychology Today, “What’s the Difference Between a Feeling and an Emotion?”