This must have been one of the most discussed topics I had in the past years. Sentences like “I have a bad feeling about it” or “I can get so emotional” are almost used on a daily basis. But what do they actually represent? What does it mean when we say “I feel” or “I’m emotional”? Most (if not all) of the major obstacles I deal with are of an emotional/feeling nature. Yet most of us never contemplate what these sensations could imply beyond the situation they are experienced in. I’ll discuss further on how I identify and differentiate between feeling and emotion. It has helped me a lot to notice the difference between both and is also closely entangled in my perception of reality. It has made me more capable of staying centered within difficult moments, to the extend that I’m more capable of expressing myself. In this article I’ll mostly focuss on the difficult side of emotion, emotions like joy, fullfillment or any other perceived as positive emotion are of a different approach, which for now, I would like to keep separated (even if I do concider them both sides of the same coin).
What are emotions?
From a neurological perspective, emotions are lower level responses occurring in the subcortical region of the brain, the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices. These are responsible for the biochemical reactions in your body, altering your physical state. To understand this better we have to look at the history of human mental development. For most, past survival was dependent on our instinctual responses. Our mental capacity to generate complex solutions wasn’t as developed and we relied on these responses to keep us alive. We still experience these primal instincts to a full extend when confronted with extreme danger. At which moment our body responses automatically without any interference of our conscious mind.
These emotional responses may have been useful in the past. However, even if they sometimes still are, most of the time they hinder us from developing further in a more sophisticated society. For example, if we’re afraid to communicate to a certain person, it may be impossible to keep our body relaxed. Which may hinder the objectives of the relationship and put us in a stressful situation every time. We may go into a state of fight or flight and are incapable of consciously dealing with the situation. In ancient times this could have been a useful reaction since it could have saved our life. Either by running away or fighting. In our more developed society, these body sensations can hinder us from dealing with a situation in a more relaxed and useful manner. In certain situations we may need this reactionism keep us together. For example, we might be crossing the street and a car comes at us at high speed. At this moment we need our instinctual reaction to generate the instant reaction of jumping out of the way. Which is also not a sure response, not that all people will jump out of the way. Some might freeze instead, which is equally and emotional reaction. This could be due to an instinctual response in which we freeze in front of a threat. Similarly, as some animals play death in the case of an attack.
In short, emotions are the instinctual body reactions coded within our deeper subconscious.
However, I’m not a big fan on pinpointing all these emotional responses. Even though many are universally similar, for example, if I raise my voice at an animal, the animal will feel threatened, equally does the human. But we have to take into account the neuroplasticity of the brain, which is the possibility to change neurological connection, even on a deeper subconscious level. For example, a high-level~ monk who has the capacity to stay relaxed even in the most threatening situations without any emotional responses. Which would imply the transcending of the emotional/instinctual cirquit. I do take the position that all is possible but not always probable, not all of us have the motivation to inspect our mind like a monk. There’s much more to deepen on this topic when it comes to genetics and emotion but for now, I’ll keep it simply at what I found most useful.
What are feelings?
Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of the brain. These are the reactions towards emotions through the formation of mental associations. These associations are constructed through your own subjective interpretation. People have different experiences and therefore different memories and believes. Feelings are the context build upon emotions. But feelings are also the breathing ground for emotions to be experienced. It’s not always that the emotional response comes first. For example, in a moment of terror the emotional (deeper subconscious) response is first and then the feeling contextualizes the situation. But there are much more irrational feelings.
For example the fear of heights, there are many people who suffer and who don’t suffer because of vertigo. Therefore we do not share this emotion as a universal response. This means that an emotional reaction is integrated into~ the deeper subconscious through subjective experience. One may have seen a traumatic event in which a person fell to her or his death. And from this experience, she or he generated through context a fear of heights.
We can dissect this picture in order to get a better understanding of what’s going on.
1. First, there’s no fear of heights but there is a fear of death.
2. By experiencing someone’s death, who fell from a height, an emotional response manifested itself (involuntary).
3. This event generated a context, which developed an association between heights and death. Thus height and the emotional response towards death got connected.
4. When confronted with heights, the feelings trigger the emotional response. The feelings being the context generated, height = death. There’s a fear of death thus there’s an emotional response to heights by connecting both.
Depending on the strength of the connection the body reactions (emotions) will be more or less intense. In light cases, there will simply be a gut sensation, but the person may still be very capable of walking over a bridge. In extreme cases, there might be a complete shutdown of the body and the person might faint.
The point being, feelings are the context through which emotions get experienced. And these contexts can be extremely complex to understand. But without context, which is without a mental understanding of what’s actually going on there cannot be an emotional response. Someone who never saw a gun will not be afraid if someone points it at them. Equally, someone who has no knowledge of what a tiger is, might simply see it as a fluffy animal.
In short, feelings are the contextualizations through which emotions get triggered.
To put it all together, a problem with public speaking
For most of my life, I had an issue with public speaking. Most of the times when I would speak for large groups, I would just forget what I was saying and everything would fall apart. At first, it was common sense, that I simply fear public speaking, END. After a while, I paid closer attention to my body and notice that my whole body used to shake. My breathing got irregular, my heart raced faster and my hands wouldn’t keep still. These are emotional reactions which are involuntary because I have simply no control over them. Later on, I came to understand I made a context for this fear to arise. For example telling myself I would fail or any other negative thought. These are the feelings that are generated through context. I generate a context in which I fear public speaking and from that comes an emotional body response which may get stored within the deeper subconscious. We can’t say that fear of public speaking is a natural thing. It was within my own subjective context that it had became a fear. And this fear does generate a natural impulse which are the emotional responses. This response shows itself as stress within my body. Which produces involuntary movement, of which I had no conscious control.
The next step was to differentiate between emotion and feeling. To consciously look at what was actually happening. And accept that I cannot change my fear (emotion) for public speaking but I can slowly adjust my thoughts or context in which I perceive myself. By differentiating and conscious effort I became more capable of staying calm in such situations. To the extent that I almost have no involuntary movements anymore. However, the gut feeling, the sense of pressure around the navel is still there. Thus if I put in conscious effort to try to change my feelings towards public speaking, I will slowly change the whole process. And maybe one day bare to confidently speak in front of an audience.
The context of these feelings equally lay within the subconscious. To change the subconscious, you have to make it conscious. And therefore you have to gracefully lie it into a stable position. Keeping in mind that everything we experience is there to learn from as we become more conscious beings. It is very common to say to yourself I can’t do this or that, but by practice you can learn to do it. Imagine what the difference would be, if we would be relaxed and know we can do something from the start. There would be no involuntary emotional responses and we would have the capacity to give our full attention to the task at hand.
To round it up one last time: emotions are the instinctual body reactions coded within or subconscious which gain context through feelings. In general emotional reactions aren’t based on conscious thought~ but on unconscious reactionism. When confronted with an emotional situation it’s better to take a moment to relax until you’re capable of thinking more clearly. If you’re in a social situation or talking to a person it might be a good idea to ask to be excused. Either going to the toilet or moving to another space. In which you take your time to relax and later come back in more relax state of mind. And don’t forget, healing takes time, we’re all here to learn, mistakes will and need to be made in order to grow.
If you explore this topic more, you’ll come to find many different explanations of what I’m saying. From very rigid scientific data to more floaty and spiritual. Personally, when it comes to more subtle topics, I don’t think there’s a single way. There are infinite systems on how to deal with these subjects and the way I described is simply one of them. There are also many people who never delve into this subject, yet they are very relaxed and naturally differentiate between feelings and emotions. Which shows the brains capacity to deal with information in infinite different ways.
My opinion comes through my own experience with different healing forms. And based on those experiences I constructed my own theory.