The ultimate guide to understanding emotions and feelings

Charlie Evans (2018) wrote a great article about the science of emotions and I’ve borrowed the following chart, The chemistry of emotions. The chart explains how different parts of the brain are responsible for different moods, or activate parts of the brain that trigger the stimulation of the autonomic nervous system.

While it’s a scientific explanation, I think the chart is self-explanatory so don’t be afraid of the big words like Noradrenaline and Acetylcholine.

Charlie Evans, 2018

Now let’s look at a neurological description. Lenzen (2005) conducted an interview with noted neurologist Antonio R. Damasio and I’d like to share the following excerpts with you.

Damasio was asked if he differentiated between feelings and emotions.

Yes. In everyday language we often use the terms interchangeably. This shows how closely connected emotions are with feelings. But for neuroscience, emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli.

When we are afraid of something, our hearts begin to race, our mouths become dry, our skin turns pale and our muscles contract. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously.

Feelings occur after we become aware in our brain of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of fear.

So, feelings are formed by emotions?

Yes. The brain is constantly receiving signals from the body, registering what is going on inside of us. It then processes the signals in neural maps, which it then compiles in the so-called somatosensory centers.

Feelings occur when the maps are read and it becomes apparent that emotional changes have been recorded—as snapshots of our physical state, so to speak.

What are emotions?

Emily Roberts

We all like to think we know our own emotions and that we can perceive other people’s emotions. But despite this belief, experts in this field have a great deal of difficulty coming to any agreement about what emotions really are. The thing that everyone does agree on is that emotions are the source of our greatest pleasures and our greatest pains. And when we have problems in life we often refer to them as emotional problems.

Some common positive emotions include:

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Satisfaction
  • Contentment
  • Interest
  • Amusement
  • Happiness
  • Serenity
  • Awe

A few of the most commonly felt negative emotions are:

Loneliness –

Do you think we need both?

Look back over the list of sample negative emotions. Do you want to feel any of those emotions? You probably don’t, and it’s no wonder! It doesn’t feel good to experience any of those emotions.

We all know for sure that we need positive emotions to function effectively, grow, and thrive.

So if it’s basically universally unpleasant for us to experience negative emotions and universally pleasant and desirable to experience positive emotions, do we actually need the negative ones at all?

As it turns out, yes!

Although they are not pleasant to experience, they’re necessary for two big reasons:

  • Negative emotions give us a counterpoint to positive emotions; without the negative, would the positive emotions still feel as good?
  • Negative emotions serve evolutionary purposes, encouraging us to act in ways that boost our chances of survival and help us grow and develop as people. (Ackerman 2019)

Through years of studying emotions, American psychologist Dr. Robert Plutchik proposed that there are eight primary emotions that serve as the foundation for all others: joy, sadness, acceptance, disgust, fear, anger, surprise and anticipation. (Pollack, 2016).

Each primary emotion has a polar opposite, so that:

  • Joy is the opposite of Sadness
  • Fear is the opposite of Anger
  • Anticipation is the opposite of Surprise
  • Disgust is the opposite of Trust

Can you guess how many emotions a human can experience? It’s around 34,000. (You read that correctly).

So while it’s hard to understand all 34,000 distinct emotions, we can learn how to identify the primary emotions and act accordingly. It’s especially useful for moments of intense feeling and when the mind cannot remain objective as it operates from an impulsive of a “fight or flight” response (Watkins, 2014).

Karimova (2019) suggests that emotions influence our actions in five main ways, which we outline here:

1- Emotion Component. This is where an individual simply experiences the feelings. It’s about monitoring the internal universe and recognizing what is being experienced at that time.

2- Action Tendency Component. Once the emotion is identified, the body moves into action. Emotions bestow certain actions instead of others, which means that while some are beyond our control (and thankfully so), like pulling your hand away from a hot iron, others are within our control, facing the fear to continue with a speech or a presentation.

3- Appraisal Component. By cognitively analyzing the emotion, the individual is able to pick up on the situations, actions, environments, or individuals that are causing the emotion. This aids the individual in tracking how these stimuli impact their well-being. It’s also invaluable for helping communicate the state of our internal world with others.

4- Motor Component. This is the communicative function of how we express what we are experiencing (facial expressions, hand gestures, body movements, etc.). So it is extremely important on the inter-individual level, as well as that of the individual.

5- Physiological Component. This component supports all others and is the chemical reaction that our body experiences. For instance, the rush of blood flow to the hands occurs when one experiences the emotion of anger.

While the components of the emotions we feel are present in all individuals, the intensity and expression of these emotions differ from one person to another. There are also social factors like gender, culture, and race, that influence why people may feel emotions differently despite similar situations.

What are feelings?

You can see there’s a big crossover between the two — emotions and feelings and people will use them interchangeably. However,

What’s important is understanding our own emotions and feelings; learn to name them. Lots of us tend to say “I’m hurt” or “I’m angry”. But look at all the other words that would convey our feelings much more appropriately i.e. “I feel rejected” or “I feel irritated”.

Understanding will help us build better relationships with our families, friends, colleagues and patients or students. That’s because being aware of our emotions can help us talk about feelings more clearly, avoid or resolve conflicts better, and move past difficult feelings more easily.

If you do have strong negative feelings, perhaps after an argument, it’s much easier for the other person to accept “I feel really hurt by what you’ve just said” rather than “You really hurt me”. Which one sounds better?

Think about it — “You really hurt me.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes you did….. you said……” and on the argument goes……

No one can argue with your feelings – they’re your feeling, name them and own them, rightly or wrongly in someone else’s opinion. They can’t tell you “No you don’t feel……”

If you have small children, teach them to understand and express their negative feelings. Give them a page of emoticons and ask them to point at the one that they are feeling each day i.e. upset face, agitated or confused. Accept that this is their feeling.

It made me smile when my sons were small and the little one would say to his big brother “I feel really upstet when you won’t let me play with your toys”. The eldest would say “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upstet you. Here, you can play with this”.

Which explanation do you think better explains emotions and feelings, chemical or neurological, maybe both? Did you learn anything that you didn’t already know? Tell me if I’ve missed anything.


Mum to two amazing sons. Following recovery from a lengthy psychotic episode, depression, anxiety and anorexia, I decided to train as a Mental Health Nurse and worked successfully in various settings before becoming a Ward Manager. I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and a Mental Health Awareness Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Youth and Mental Health Armed Forces Instructor. Just started my mental health from the other side blog.

15 thoughts on “The ultimate guide to understanding emotions and feelings”

  1. I like that you mentioned that negative emotions have a valid place. After all, it wouldn’t be very appropriate to feel happy and excited after a loved one had just died.

  2. 34,000?! 🤯

    I like this point you made: “Negative emotions give us a counterpoint to positive emotions; without the negative, would the positive emotions still feel as good?”

    I’m having a low mood/high anxiety day so this read came at a good time for me. 🙂

  3. Yeah, this reminds me of a book I read once that stated that we should never say anything negative (complaining, for example). I took the book very seriously and said to my dad one day, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

    And he said, “We’re walking through a vicious downpour, we’re drenched, tree branches are falling down all around us, and it’s chilly, but…. well, no. It’s really not a beautiful day.” That still makes me laugh, for some reason. 😀

    So yeah, I think we need to be aware that negative emotions have a place. They just require more mastery than the positive ones, which I’ve been reading about in my anger self-help book. Great blog post!

  4. Wow, so many interesting things I hadn’t thought about before. I do think it’s interesting that despite all of the technical advancements that have been made we still don’t know that much about how and why feelings and emotions work the way they do.

  5. When one is very paranoid one simply cannot understand the emotions of other individuals. Everyone is part of a vast plot that encompasses the entire Earth. One misses situations closest to other individuals. People are thinking about jobs, family, friends, various immediate difficulties and then also people are sizing up your immediate situation all the while you and everyone else is part of some vast plot. When psychotic one can not see what is right in front and immediate whereby one can not understand the emotions of other individuals. Going sane and realizing that I had not understood where people were at at all was a humbling experience.

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