Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, some scientists propose they are not the same. Antonio R. Damasio, renowned neuroscientist and current director of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute, has spent the past thirty-plus years striving to show that feelings are what arise as the brain interprets emotions. Emotions themselves, he posits, are the complex reactions the body has to external stimuli.
Damasio shares that when we are afraid, our bodies respond first. For example, we may experience sweaty palms, an upset stomach, and heart palpitations. According to Damasio, 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.
Then we think.
Then we identify, interpret, and label.
Then we feel.
Consider a feeling of “having butterflies in your stomach,” the sense of excitement you may feel when you anticipate something great is about to happen. The “excitement” is a description of the emotion flowing through your nervous system, followed by a thought of excitement that you have labeled as a feeling in response to your physiology by virtue of associating that response to an anticipated event.
However, the emotion and the physiology of excitement are virtually identical to the emotion and physiology of nervousness, which, if consistent, can be labeled as anxiety. Our bodies do not know the difference between excitement and nervousness. Rather, it is our mind that interprets the emotion through thought that is then labeled as a feeling of nervousness/anxiety.
When we identify with the emotions through habitual thought, feeling, and labels, we may miss the opportunity the visiting emotions may be there to present. Our emotions are gifts of awareness that can unwrap our True Authentic Self.