When we experience strong, negative emotions and feelings, it is difficult, if not impossible to remain objective. Our mind can become overwhelmed with persistent, negative thoughts that distort our perception of what is real and what is not.
When this happens, our feelings become fact to us.
But feelings are not facts.
This is not to say that our emotions and feelings are not real, in and of themselves. They are quite normal and natural. But that doesn’t always mean they are serving us well.
The Difference Between Emotions and Feelings
Some of the problem in dealing with our emotions and feelings stems from the fact that we equate the two. This is because they are interrelated, so much so that it is often difficult to distinguish what we are experiencing: an emotional reaction, or a feeling.
It might be helpful to examine the two experiences as they are currently defined in the field of psychology.
What are Emotions?
Emotions are instinctual, physical sensations triggered by the amygdala (our reptilian brain) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex VPC (the area linking our hippocampus and frontal cortex).
Our amygdala is designed to scan our environment for potential threats, to protect us. It triggers base emotions in our body to prepare us to fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. We experience these physical sensations as fear, anger, sadness, or happiness.
These are largely physical, though there is of course an element of ‘mental’ activity, since these emotions are triggered by part of the brain, but we are rarely aware of the process.
Our emotions seem to pop up out of nowhere, unannounced. But they don’t actually come from nowhere; they are subconscious reactions to our environment, or our perceived environment. This means that our thoughts can trigger the amygdala to react, even if there is no actual threat.
The amygdala cannot recognize the difference between an actual danger and a danger created by our feelings.
What Exactly are Feelings?
Feelings are interpretations of our emotions. We experience an emotion, then our ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPC) interprets that emotion to give it meaning.
The reason we know there’s a difference between emotions and feelings, is that people can respond to the same emotional sensation in very different ways. They interpret them differently.
Let’s imagine a common scenario.
Imagine two people in line to ride a rollercoaster. Person A has never ridden a rollercoaster before and has always had a fear of them. Their amygdala triggers an emotional response in the body (accelerated heart beat, lower blood flow to the extremities).
Because of their underlying fear, their VPC interprets these physical experiences as fear. Fear is what they are feeling. It is their interpretation of their emotional reaction to the perceived threat of riding a rollercoaster.
Person B has ridden rollercoasters many times, or at least they have no preconceptions about the experience and generally like to take risks and try new things.
Person B will experience the very same physical sensations as Person A, (accelerated heart beat, lower blood flow to the hands and feet). But Person B interprets these emotions or sensations in a very different way. Instead of feeling fear, they feel excitement.
The physical sensations associated with fear and excitement are exactly the same. But the feelings of fear and excitement, interpretations of the emotions, are as different as night and day.
Person A might worry something catastrophic will happen on the rollercoaster. If their thoughts are not checked or interrupted, their unfounded fears will become a ‘fact’ in their mind. This false ‘fact’ may prevent them from the thrilling experience of riding a rollercoaster.
Person B sees the facts very differently. They are certain the ride will be exciting.
What are Facts?
Facts are measurements of objective reality. This means they can be corroborated with physical evidence. In the case of our little story, the rollercoaster is a fact. Person A and Person B are facts. They exist in the physical world. We can say that their emotions are fact. Both of them are experiencing, in this case, the same physical sensations. These physical reactions can be measured with scientific instruments.
Feelings are real, in the sense that we all have them. They have a certain degree of reality, of factual basis. But the content of those feelings may be very far from factual, indeed.
Person A, whose feelings were unchecked, is now convinced something bad will happen. Even though nothing has yet happened, their feelings have become a kind of fact, in their mind. But it isn’t a fact. Their feeling of fear, projected into the future, cannot be measured. It is an interpretation of their emotional reaction to the situation.
If Person A gives into their feelings, they will miss out on an exciting experience. Not the end of the world, of course.
Missing out on riding a rollercoaster might not affect their life in any major way, but if they always give into their feelings of fear, it can adversely affect their life in profound ways.
They may miss out on loving relationships, career goals, and life-enriching experiences. Their ‘facts,’ which are really only feelings, may stop them from truly living the life they could have.
How Can We Distinguish Feelings from Facts from Emotions?
In order to interrupt this process of emotion to feeling to false fact, which can then trigger the process all over again, we must first realize that this is what is happening in our mind and body.
If you’re reading this, then you are already on the right path. You have gained a degree of awareness of what is happening. That’s good!
The more you become aware of the process, as it happens, the more you can interrupt it when it does. It is like inoculating yourself against false facts in your mind. If you know your feelings aren’t facts, then when you feel them, you can stop yourself, and say,
“Self, I’m feeling fear. Why is that? What emotion or physical sensations am I actually experiencing?”
Then notice the physical sensations in your body: where they are, what’s happening? Is your heart-rate up? Are your hands and feet colder? Are you experiencing the urge to run, fight back, freeze in place?
Then ask yourself,
“Is there really a threat here? Is the threat a fact?”
Flipping Feelings on Their Head
Maybe you’re afraid of flying and you had to get on a plane to go somewhere for work, or to see a family member? You experience the same reaction, and feel it as fear.
But what if you caught yourself feeling fear, and then flipped it?
Here’s how to do that
Once you’re aware of what’s happening in your body, ask yourself,
“Why am I here?”
“I’m flying to see my mom.”
Then simply tell yourself,
“I’m excited to go see my mom!”
You’ve just replaced ‘fear’ with ‘excitement,’ because you gave your amygdala a reason for the physical sensations it generated in your body.
It isn’t easy in the beginning, because you have to consciously focus attention on things that are largely unconscious. It takes practice and time, but it’s well worth the effort.
Reach Out to a Professional
Of course, some feelings are difficult to overcome on your own. Deep-seated fears and anxieties are hard to overcome. Our professional counselors at RDU Counseling for Change, have the experience and expertise to help you through this process.
We offer individual, couple, and family therapy. If you live in the Wake County/RDU area, give us a call to set up an appointment. We also have Telehealth options!
Contact us today, and let us help you on the road to better mental health!