Q. I grew up in a family that used the terms emotions and feelings interchangeably and that let them all hang out. My partner says I can control my behaviors regardless of what I feel like. Is that right?

A. Unfortunately the words emotions and feels are often used interchangeably in our culture. I do believe they refer to different brain-function concepts. An article published in THE LANCET Neurology, March 2004, reported on research verifying that emotions and feelings are mediated by distinct neuronal systems.

Emotions are physiological changes that arise in every cell in the brain and body in response to sensory stimuli. The stimulus may be something in the environment outside or your direct control or something inside your brain and body (e.g., thoughts). They create, in effect, altered states of consciousness/being, each of which comes with different behavioral patterns, memories, postures, facial expressions.

Feelings are subjective interpretations that emerge from the cognitive processing of an emotion-eliciting state. Based on your preferences, learned habits, background, experiences, education, habits, perceptions, beliefs, and thought patterns (to name just a few), your brain tries to make sense of the physiological changes that resulted from the emotion that surfaced.

Understanding these differences can empower you to manage emotions and feelings more effectively. While you may not be responsible for every emotion that surfaces, you do have some responsibility for every feeling state that you choose to maintain. And you can choose the actions you take and the behaviors you exhibit related to those emotions and the feelings.


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