Emotions, Feelings, and Moods: What's the difference?

In here: Emotional health, Daily activity

Joshua McInnes 5 min read time

Sun shining through the trees

What's the difference between a feeling and an emotion?

Summary

There is a direct relationship between our thoughts and our emotions.

  • Thoughts are our perception of stimulus and triggers

  • Thoughts trigger emotions: chemical reactions in our body.

    • These are physiological and don't last very long.

  • Our perception of our emotions creates feelings.

    • These are cognitive and last longer.

  • Moods are more complex, general combinations of feelings and emotions.

Feelings, emotions, and moods. These words are often used to mean the same thing, but the terms aren't interchangeable. There are subtle and nuanced differences between all of them, but where one stops and the other begins isn't always clearly understood.

Knowing the differences between these concepts can be helpful in growing our emotional literacy - our ability to understand not just the world around us but how it affects us mentally. When we understand our perceptions better, it can help us manage them and resist being overwhelmed.

With that in mind, let's take a closer look at the distinctions.

Thoughts

We'll begin with our sensory input. Thoughts are our perception of events, stimulus, and our environment. They are a cognitive function taking place within our mind. Kateri McRae, a University of Denver psychologist who works with the study of emotions says, "a lot of times, our feelings are preceded by certain thoughts." This means our perception of things often shapes our emotional responses and feelings.

Emotions

Emotions are physiological. They are a biological response that occurs unconsciously and takes place within our body over a short amount of time. How short?

Well according to Harvard Neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, 90 seconds is about how long it takes for the emotion inducing chemicals to completely dissipate once released. Dr Taylor explains;

"When a person has a reaction to something in their environment," she says, "there's a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop."

Emotions are a way for our bodies to very quickly and efficiently receive and process data about our environment. They are essential to our daily activity and functioning.

Noted neurologist Antonio R. Damasio elaborates;

". . .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

Feelings are cognitive and can last longer than their chemical counterparts, emotions. They are something we perceive consciously, made up of physical and mental sensations that occur as we internalise emotions, of which they are often made up of a mix.

As the emotional chemicals are 'felt' and we begin to process them cognitively, integrating them into our perception, we formulate feelings.

This is how we 'decode' or make sense of the physiological sensations triggered by our emotions.

Moods

Moods are often defined as more generalised and made up of a combination of emotions and feelings.

They are often more in-flux, and semi-persistent, coming and going. As a result, they may last longer than individual emotions or feelings - anywhere from a minute to whole days.

Moods are both physical, chemical, and mental states. However, they may also be shaped by an arrangement of factors such as:

  • Environment (temperature, noise, comfort)

  • Physiology (emotions, diet, exercise, health)

  • Mental state (feelings, focus, cognition).

All these inputs come together to shape a general sense of mood.

What They're All For

Emotions, feelings, and moods are tools. The stimuli that trigger our feelings and emotions usually stick around or recur. By developing more complex, longer lasting moods we can physiologically and mentally stay in the right gear to tackle dangers and opportunities present in those stimuli. And emotions allow us to very quickly judge and react to more immediate opportunities and threats.

The danger is when our thought patterns trigger unnecessarily negative emotional responses. These can develop into unwanted feelings and moods. These can, in turn, reinforce our negative thoughts and create a kind of emotional loop that results in overwhelmingly negative mental states.

What We Can Do

However, the above distinctions reveal that there is a direct link between our thoughts and how we end up feeling. This means we can exercise agency over our mood by adjusting those initial thought patterns.

"When we shift our thoughts, that can precipitate a change in our emotions," Kateri McRae explains.

This is the cognitive behavioural therapy technique known as Cognitive Reframing which we explore in our multi-part series you can begin here.

Things to Remember

Emotions, feelings and moods are often conflated in everyday conversation, clinically there are subtle distinctions, however. Understanding and being aware of these differences can help us understand what we may be experiencing physically and mentally. This can help us manage unwanted or overwhelming feelings.

It's important to remember too that our emotions and moods - even unwanted ones - aren't bad. They're important tools when it comes to interpreting the world around us. Our Thoughts and feelings allow us to process and perceive them. All of them play an important role as survival mechanisms and are integral to our daily functioning, emotional health, and self-image.

It's only when our feelings become overwhelming and disrupt our emotional health, daily activity, or relationships that we need to act, not to remove them, but to understand, regulate, and manage healthier emotional processes.

TRIVIA: Feelings last longer than memories. Studies have shown people can remember how they felt even if the details of a memory are unclear - even in patients with amnesia or Alzheimer's.

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