In everyday language, the terms emotions and feelings often are used as substitutes. It turns out though, that from the point of view of behavioral neurobiology they describe two different phenomena*. Understanding the difference between these concepts will come in handy in further exploration of mental tension and happiness.
What are emotions
“An emotion consists of a very well orchestrated set of alterations in the body that has, as a general purpose, making life more survivable by taking care of a danger, of taking care of an opportunity, either / or, or something in between. “Antonio Damasio
An emotion is an implementation of a very complex program of alterations to the bodily states that is triggered when a danger or a potential opportunity in the environment is detected. The purpose of an emotional reaction is to prepare an organism to face a danger that arises in its environment or to take advantage of an opportunity.
Thus, emotions refer to all possible states of the body, the purpose of which is to adapt the organism to changing external conditions. Emotions are a form of movement, movement that manifests itself outside (e.g. movement of the facial muscles in the case of a smile) and movement inside the body, i.e. changes in the work of internal organs (e.g. increased heart rate, stomach contraction, increased bowel movement, etc.) This movement also takes place at the molecular level, for example in the endocrine system (e.g., secretion of norepinephrine by the adrenal glands during a stress response).
Emotional response programs are stored in the DNA of all species, and do not differ essentially between individuals or even between species. The emotion of joy will be very similar for both a prehistoric caveman and a modern businessman. It will also be the same in principle in a dog, an ape and a human.
However, emotions run outside the scope of consciousness of an organism. As changes in bodily states, they occur on the same level as digestive processes or the work of the circulatory system.
What are feelings?
A feeling is how the mind feels an emotion that has arisen in the body, how it feels a physiological change. A feeling is the way the mind perceives the change in the work of internal organs triggered by an emotional response. A feeling is a mental state taking place in the consciousness of the organism. In short – feelings are conscious emotions.
So, if we feel fear, it means that an emotional reaction has occurred in the body, i.e. a certain sequence of changes in the state of internal organs, changes in the secretion of hormones in the endocrine system, caused by the body recognizing threats in the environment.
If we feel thirsty, it means that a program has been triggered in the body to implement a specific species-beneficial behavior. The tension associated with the emotion of desire will persist as long as the body feels the possibility of acting to release tension.
If we feel calm, it means that the body works in a neutral mode because at the moment it does not detect factors that would pose a threat to its functioning, nor does it recognize opportunities that could positively affect its current state.
The body constantly scans its surroundings for possible threats or potential benefits. He also constantly evaluates these experiences from the point of view of his functioning and on the basis of this assessment he decides whether to trigger a specific emotional reaction or not.
An organism is incredibly complex and constantly experiences an enormous amount of sensations. For this reason, emotional programs are constantly run overlapping and intertwining. The spectrum of emotional states is very wide. At one end of this spectrum one will find bodily states (emotions) that are relaxed and neutral, and on the other end states of readiness to avoid a threat (i.e. tension) or to seize a potential opportunity (tension again).
* This distinction and the strong link between feelings and emotions with physiological states was first introduced by Antonio Damasio.