What is always there with us but remains all too invisible? What do many of us try to suppress, and are typically afraid to let show? What lies behind every good song?
If you ask the singer Morris Albert, he’ll say, “feelings”, and that would be the correct guess!
Why do feelings matter? What’s the difference between feelings and emotions? What do emotions and stress have in common?
How do learning about our emotions help us? What do we do once we have identified what we’re feeling?
In this article, you’ll hear a thing or two about feelings and emotions, and what to do with them— exploring their true roles in your life so that you can use them to guide you instead of suppressing them and letting them slowly destroy you, your everyday life and interactions with other people.
What’s the difference between Feelings and Emotions?
So how do feelings and emotions differ from each other?
Emotions come first: they are what our bodies immediately sense in response to something around us . In other words, emotions refer to the powerful physical sensations that accompany what we feel in our minds, whose job is to naturally drive us to adapt to whatever situation we find ourselves in. On the other hand, feelings are simply our conscious interpretation of what is going on inside of us at any given moment, which makes feelings more of a mental sensation than a physical one. Feelings are the conscious experience of our emotional states.
Whilst emotions are biological, feelings —which are personalized based on our unique past experiences and temperaments— are what happen when we’ve already tried to make sense of what’s going on in our bodies whenever something happens, whether that’s a external real-life situation or an internal one such as thoughts, or memories and images of real or imagined situations. Unfortunately, it has become quite common to use both terms interchangeably. Moods, in turn, are more enduring patterns of emotions and feelings that make us more likely to feel one way or the other, e.g. cheerful, anxious, irritable, or depressed.
To put it even simpler, when we try to pinpoint what may be going on inside ourselves (keyword: emotions!), we’re talking about our feelings, but emotions deeply reflect the full spectrum of our feelings and associated sensations that we almost always have even if we say we’re not feeling anything.
What’s the Function of Emotions?
Did you know that we can feel something yet not be aware of ourselves experiencing that emotion?
Dr. Jon Allen, author of Coping With Trauma: Hope Through Understanding, said this about emotions: “we may not always feel them, although others may be affected by them”. Indeed, there are times when we do not realize that we’re angry yet to those around us, we look or sound a little scary. Or there are times we’re actually feeling quite lonely (or bored) but don’t realize it perhaps because we’re so used to being distracted or occupied with something. Or, perhaps we don’t realize we’re feeling scared because we’ve been told many times that it’s not okay for us to feel that way and instead our fear manifests as self-doubt.
But believe it or not, whether we are conscious or unconscious of our feelings and emotions, they exist— and will have an effect on our actions, the way we think about ourselves, situations, and others, and our physical health (emotional regulation mediates the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and physical and mental health)  .
On that note, here’s an example of how emotions trigger thoughts: if I feel nervous and I sense my insides pull away from everyone during a group meeting I might start to have thoughts such as ‘I don’t belong here’ or ‘these people don’t want me here’. Moving right along, the international behavior expert Mavis Mazhura wrote that emotions can get in the way or get you on the way…
That is, emotions have the power to dominate the direction of our everyday lives, helping us to continue moving towards our goals OR ruin us by pushing us towards self-sabotaging behaviors such as denying, suppressing or ignoring (blocking out) feelings and blaming ourselves or others during conflicts— which may lead to further misguided efforts at helping ourselves feel better, such as distancing ourselves (isolating) from others for too long, constant stimulation (from work or social media or even “friends”), consuming substances inappropriately (numbing) and more that eventually worsen our relationships with others and our well-being.
Now let’s go back to the example in the previous paragraphs about feeling nervous during a group meeting. The nervousness one feels can lead down different paths depending on what one does with that nervousness: if you suppress the nervousness, without realizing it you may come off as uninterested to your fellow group members which may trigger their disapproval. If you let yourself be entirely consumed by the nervousness without trying to understand it, you may frantically excuse yourself too soon and miss out on ideas discussed between group members during that meeting.
Quite often, the middle path is deemed ideal: whereby you welcome feeling nervous, get curious about what it means that you’re nervous, and decide on what to do to feel less nervous (which usually involves changing your thinking too).
Even uncomfortable emotions serve a function
Truly, it’s quite easy to engage in maladaptive coping because many of us may not have developed the capacity to tolerate the full range of emotions (many of which can feel uncomfortably painful) humans are supposed to experience. And when we don’t know what to make of our emotions, they will for sure determine our behaviors without us having any say in it. What we should remind ourselves here is that typically, emotions serve to protect us by pushing us to naturally act in ways that ensure we survive and thrive, such as when we retreat out of fear, stand up for ourselves in anger when we are being oppressed, or reject something out of disgust to keep that thing away from us.
Even being sad serves a function— it makes us take a break to focus on recuperating and reassessing what we need to feel better and pulls people to comfort us, soothing that feeling itself. Certainly, emotions are purposeful, whether we’re talking about pleasant or unpleasant emotions, and we should count ourselves as blessed to be creatures of emotion.
In addition to being directive and purposeful, emotions give us information about what is important to us, what we want, and what we should prioritize, therefore aiding us in making decisions such as what to do for a living, what kind of work environments we’d prefer, and the types of activities and people we prefer to engage in and with.
What is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation refers to the act of doing whatever it takes to make sense of our emotional experience and to ease that experience , which includes making sense of the thoughts that trigger our emotions and the thoughts that result from the emotions we have, along with other aspects of our experience such as our impulses, sensations, desires, needs, and deeply-rooted beliefs.
So how can we regulate our emotions? Start by taking ownership of our emotions, trying to make sense of them, understand them, and— soothe/ ease/ moderate them— which can come in the following forms:
Making space for those emotions, reconstructing the thoughts that underlie those emotions, easing the sensations that are a part of those emotions (such as by engaging in deep breathing or grounding), meeting our unmet needs that may have triggered the emotion(s), challenging deeply-rooted beliefs that maintain those emotions, or doing something to improve the situation that triggered the emotion in the first place.
Remember too that the idea behind emotional regulation is to be responsible for the existence of our emotions, not only embracing all of our emotions but using them to understand ourselves and others (the latter is known as empathy)— all of which takes learning and practice. And instead of using words like manage, overcome, or control, regulate may be a more suitable word when talking about how to navigate emotions because we might mistakenly think that emotions can be controlled and pushed away—when the truth is they have to be accepted and then used as information to guide our lives and interactions with others.
To test your understanding of what emotional regulation is, why not try to imagine what it would look like to be emotionally DYS-regulated (which is what happens when we do not regulate our emotions)?
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence, otherwise known as EQ, is our ability to regulate our emotions so that they get expressed appropriately , which involves the capacity to be aware of (noticing/ recognizing/ realizing) what we’re feeling, understand what our emotions mean, and use them to the benefit of ourselves and others, or as Psych Central defines it, the ability to understand ourselves emotionally.
Another definition of emotional intelligence proposed by neuroscientist and best-selling author Robert Cooper is that it is the ability to sense, understand, and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as a source of human energy, information, connection, and influence .
Yet another definition of EQ by psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, creators of the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso EQ Test, is that emotional intelligence is the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.
Those who are good at emotional regulation have high emotional intelligence, in which both emotional regulation (a skill) and emotional intelligence (an ability) make their lives and relationships with people more fulfilling because they are able to understand, negotiate with, and work alongside others and deal with conflicts and changes effectively.
Did you know that according to Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who coined the term emotional intelligence, EQ consists of the following five key components: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills! (which he outlined in his book “Emotional Intelligence, Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”).
What do emotions have to do with stress?
What is the link between emotions and stress? For starters, some emotions are more stressful to experience than others, typically difficult emotions such as anxiety (worry), fear, frustration, sadness, loneliness, anger, and shame, most especially when we are left without any sources of comfort or ideas on how to work around these emotions . When we don’t try to or don’t know how to engage in emotional regulation, we are predisposing ourselves to a perpetual state of distress, which can lead to chronic stress if prolonged, affecting our mental and physical health.
Stress is a physiological response; a state of being; a process that goes on in the body and mind that pushes us to retreat or attack; flee or fight, and in some cases, remain stuck, frozen, and helpless . Know this: What we do with our emotions— especially in critical moments when we’re triggered— will determine whether our stress increases or decreases. For example, if we give our partner the cold shoulder when we’re frustrated and overwhelmed with work, they might react with annoyance, which might in turn cause us to feel rejected and hence we withdraw, feeling lonely, which can be stressful.
Similarly, if they react with disappointment, we may later feel intense guilt. Either way, if we had paused to take note of our frustration in response to our demanding work in the first place, we might have been able to find out what we can do to help ourselves feel less frustrated, which will inevitably reduce our stress levels (and spare our intimate relationship from being threatened, in this case).
Indeed, according to the Dalai Lama and Dr. Paul Ekman, a good way to manage stress is to learn about emotions and to recognize and accept emotions, allowing yourself to be “aware” of what you feel , reminding yourself that you have feelings, which aren’t good or bad and simply serve a function. The function being to tell you about what you need to survive and thrive and what is important to you at the moment.
Dr. Gabor Mate, author of When the Body Says No, agrees: if we do not identify and understand our emotions, we eventually become helpless and remain stressed over time (see Chapter 3 of his book).
What can we do with our emotions? (Keyword: Regulate)
Although they can feel overwhelming and seem irrational, emotions are almost always useful. So what can we do with them when we feel them in our minds and bodies? Start by acknowledging the existence of our emotions with an attitude of being openly curious about what they are signaling, and if we have to, proceed to tame them (reducing their intensity) with the practice of coping strategies such as doing deep breathing in a mindfulness-inspired manner and such as *reframing our thoughts to become more helpful, reassuring, and self-enhancing — knowing too that labeling what we’re feeling — being aware of— our emotions is a coping strategy in itself; the very first.
*If you can, try to sense the thoughts that accompany your feelings and reflect on your thoughts: how accurate and evidence-based are they? How could your thoughts reflect reality more accurately? What specific things, situations, and behaviors of others seem to precipitate your feelings? These are your emotional triggers, sometimes called stressors.
Whether we like it or not, emotions, as complex as they may seem, are here to stay. They’re an in-built part of our physiology, a response to threat (real or imagined; internal or external; past or present), in addition to being informative, purposeful, and also universal and social. Without the guidance of our emotions, we wouldn’t intuitively know what mattered to us and what to give our attention to, which would make it hard for us to make important decisions.
Besides, without an acknowledgment of and understanding of our emotions and the emotions of others, we wouldn’t be able to form and maintain attachments because we would lack emotional responsiveness. Furthermore, emotional regulation, emotional intelligence, and knowing how emotions are tied to stress are all essential to both relationship satisfaction and emotional well-being. Let’s give ourselves a chance to live with more ease and fulfillment with the guidance of emotions.
Allow me to end with the quote below:
‘When our emotional health is in a bad state, so is our level of self-esteem. We have to slow down and deal with what is troubling us, so that we can enjoy the simple joy of being happy and at peace with ourselves’ (Jess C. Scott).
To learn how to use the feelings wheel to develop emotional literacy, watch this video by Joshua Freedman. Alternatively, exploring the Atlas of Emotions developed by Dr. Paul Ekman and the Dalai Lama can improve your emotional competence too.
Most of all, if you’d like to proactively increase your emotional literacy and boost your emotional competence, schedule a session with us. In case you’re still wondering what therapy’s for and need a little more information, read our article on psychotherapy: why it matters, what it’s really about, and what it can do for you. If you’re an Instagram user, check out Drona Wellness on Instagram and while you’re at it, follow us too. To include the benefits of gratitude in your life today, check this out.
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Written by :
Lifelong Learner and Mental Health Counselor
Alumni of Boston University, USA, and University of Malaya, Malaysia