Feelings in psychology: explaining the essence

Emotions and feelings in psychology: essence, types, functions. What is the difference between emotions and feelings

One of the most interesting and mysterious spheres of our psyche is the world of emotions. Researched for more than one thousand years by scientists from different fields of knowledge, it still keeps many of its secrets and mysteries. Emotions permeate all our life, making it bright, saturated, then quivering and tender, then filled with unbearable burning pain. Yes, they are this life itself, because where feelings disappear, human existence ends.

The fullest essence of this area of the human psyche reveals psychology is the only science that was able to organically link together a physiological basis and the manifestations of emotional states.

What are emotional states

In psychology the term “emotions” is used in a broad sense, as emotional states, and in a narrow sense, as one of these states, along with feelings, moods, affects, etc. Emotional states are a special class of mental phenomena that reflect a person’s attitude toward the world.

Emotions and needs

Interacting with the outside world and with other people, a person constantly encounters situations that cause him different attitudes: joy or resentment, sadness or hatred, surprise or sympathy. That is, a person reflects the world and keeps information in memory, not only in images and concepts, but also in the form of emotional experiences – emotions.

Emotions are closely related to human needs. Those circumstances, situations or people in life that contribute to meeting our needs, causing us positive emotions, and those that hinder, prevent – negative. That’s how simple and at the same time complicated it all is.

  • Firstly, we are not always aware of our needs, but the emotions associated with them – always. Therefore, often we can not even explain to ourselves why we do not like this or that person, or why suddenly the mood is bad.
  • Secondly, a person lives a complex and multifaceted life, and often his needs come into conflict not only with the needs of others, but also with their own desires. Therefore, to understand this confusing and chaotic whirlpool of emotions is extremely difficult, even for an experienced psychologist. You probably know that it is possible to love and hate the same person at the same time, or to be afraid and look forward to an event at the same time.

It is possible to deal with your feelings only after realizing and putting at least in relative order your confused desires and needs. Experienced psychotherapists can help this person. After all, only by understanding and accepting their needs, or consciously abandoning them, it is possible to reduce the severity of negative experiences.

Psychophysiology of emotional states

Emotions are the most ancient type of mental states; they exist in animals and are connected with satisfaction of natural, and in higher animals also social, needs.

  • The antiquity of this type of mental states is confirmed by the fact that they are born in the old, from the point of view of evolution, subcortical part of the brain – in the limbic system. By the way, the name is very telling. Limbo is a purgatory, a place between heaven and hell, and even deeper lurks animal instincts and hidden, often dark desires and needs. They sometimes break through from the subconscious, awakening in us strange, frightening even emotions.
  • But the “youngest” and most rational part of the brain, the neocortex (the “new cortex”), controls the emotions. When the rational part of the brain turns off, for example, when we are drunk or in a state of affect, emotions are out of our control, and our behavior is controlled by instincts, not reason.

Any external stimulus causes a focus of arousal in the cerebral cortex. If the irritation is weak, the focus fades quickly, but the stronger the impact, the larger and more stable the focus. Penetrating into the subcortical zone, it activates the centers of emotions.

Emotions, in turn, cause a variety of changes in the physiological systems of the body, because emotions are a signal about the nature of the stimulus impact. If they are negative, our body reconstructs itself, getting ready to reflect the danger or run away from it. And it turns out that for our brain it does not matter if it is a real or imaginary enemy – the signal to the restructuring of the body still comes, and we experience a variety of often unpleasant sensations. Thus, the emergence of a feeling of fear is accompanied by the following processes:

  • Adrenaline is released into the blood, which should increase the supply of oxygen to the muscles and activate the sympathetic nervous system;
  • blood and nutrients are directed to support the muscular system; this reduces the supply to other body systems, so the person feels a feeling of cold, chills, his face turns pale, dizziness and even loss of consciousness can occur due to the lack of blood supply;
  • To cope with the increased need for blood supply, the heart begins to beat faster, breathing becomes more rapid to supply oxygen to the blood and, as a consequence, speech difficulties occur;
  • rational control of behavior decreases, because the functions of the cerebral cortex are somewhat suppressed, and the person literally becomes stupid, thinking rationally poorly.

Changes in operation of different systems of the organism under the influence of emotions are reflexive, so we cannot control them consciously, but we can control emotions, at least at the initial stage of their emergence. Our brain is quite capable of “persuading” the body not to give in to feelings of fear or anger. And in psychotherapy there are special techniques and trainings that allow people to learn to manage their emotions even in the most critical situations.

Managing emotions is necessary not only for regulating behavior, but also for maintaining physical health. The fact is that negative feelings (and they are experienced more intensely than positive ones) have very unpleasant consequences. Their systematic experience can lead to the development of psychosomatic illnesses, primarily of the cardiovascular and digestive systems. It is these systems that are most affected by adrenaline releases and other physiological changes. That is, the saying: “All diseases come from nerves” has a rational basis.

Types of emotions

The oldest and most primitive type of emotional states are the states of pleasure and displeasure, which belong to the simplest organic sensitivity. These experiences are related to the satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) of natural needs and are felt by a person even more physiologically than psychologically. For example, when, after a long and tiring day spent on your feet, you sit down in a soft, comfortable chair.

But most of our emotional states are “humanized,” that is, they are conscious and associated with activities and social relationships.

Moods .

This is the most generalized type of emotional states. Moods, on the one hand, are faintly expressed, but on the other they create a background for all our activity, as if they color our life at some point.

Moods are quite stable. Its change depends not only on the situation, but also on personal characteristics. In people with an agile nervous system, moods are less stable and change frequently.

The most important characteristic of moods is their subjectless nature. This emotional state creates a background, but is not related to a specific subject. Although a person may well be aware of the circumstance that spoiled his mood, the emotion itself extends not only to this circumstance, but also affects activities (everything falls out of hand, wants to drop everything, etc.) and interpersonal relationships. Often we take our bad moods out on those who have nothing to do with them, or we share our feeling of joy with the whole world.


Actually emotions (in the narrow sense) and feelings are quite close and similar, and psychologists are still arguing which of these emotional states can be attributed to a higher level, and which is more primitive. But this is important for science, and in everyday life it plays no role.

The emotions themselves are more short-lived than moods, but they are also more distinctly expressed. The strength of expression of emotions is also much higher than that of moods. The person is more aware of emotions, and clearly differentiates them: joy and anger, fear and hatred, pleasure and dislike.

But the main difference between emotions and moods is that they are subjective and are directed at a specific object or situation. These emotional states are social, that is, they are part of the process of communication, a person transmits his emotions (through facial expressions, pantomimics, intonation, gestures) to other people and is himself able to perceive them, empathize, have compassion for others.

Emotions have another unique feature – we are able to experience them not only in relation to a real situation, but also in relation to an imaginary one. Memories and adventures of book and movie characters are also capable of evoking emotions.


This type of emotional state is just like emotion and is associated with certain objects. We love or hate very specific people, phenomena, and situations. To love, to have feelings of respect or dislike in general is impossible. But feelings are longer, more sustained than emotions, deeper and more varied than they are. And it is also possible to say that feelings are more socialized and depend on human interaction with other people. Therefore, feelings are diverse, and there are several types of feelings:

  • Object feelings – the largest variety of feelings associated with various aspects of human existence; they include, for example, admiration and disgust, feelings of the sublime and a sense of humor (comic);
  • moral feelings are connected with relations in society (love, hatred, sense of duty, friendship, envy, etc.)
  • intellectual feelings are connected with cognitive needs (curiosity, inquisitiveness, sense of mystery, doubt, confidence, etc.)
  • aesthetic feelings arise in response to the perception of the beautiful or ugly in nature and art, in general they can be characterized as the experience of pleasure or displeasure, pleasure or disgust, etc.

This classification, of course, is not entirely accurate or complete, since any feeling is, in fact, subjective. But it reflects well enough the diverse and colorful palette of human feelings.

Affect and Stress

Affect is a very strong and vivid emotional response to a sudden situation that threatens a person’s health and life. Affects are short-lived, but they are expressed in a sharp activation of all the body’s defenses. It is possible to say that all forces and hidden reserves of a person are directed at getting rid of the cause of such strong negative emotions.

There are cases when people in a state of affect jumped over four-meter high fences, climbed high trees. There was even a case of a woman who rescued a child from under the wheels of a car and managed to drive it into a ditch by jabbing her hands into the side of a small truck.

The peculiarity of affect is that it is accompanied not only by a powerful discharge of physical and emotional energy, but also by a state of altered consciousness. It manifests itself in the loss of rational control over one’s actions. The subject falls out of reality and then can’t remember what he did in a state of affect. In criminology, murders committed in this state are considered to be special types of crimes because the person is not aware of his actions and does not control them.

After the affect, there is a “rolling back” – after using up all their strength, even inner reserves, the person feels weak, his hands tremble, his feet become “cotton candy” and sometimes he even loses consciousness.

Stress is similar to affect in that it occurs as a response to a traumatic or threatening situation. But it is less intense and more prolonged. Importantly, stress is not accompanied by a change in consciousness and a shutdown of rational control. Although a person, immersed in the cycle of his problems, may not realize that he lives in a state of stress.

Stress also activates the body’s forces, not only physical, but also intellectual. But at the initial stages it is felt as an increased tone and a kind of stimulation of activity, and internal reserves are not spent. Only too prolonged stress, which leads to an overload of the nervous system, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even to depression, is harmful to a person.

Functions of emotions

Emotional states bring us many moments of pleasure, but often seem unnecessary. We would like to get rid of negative experiences, not to worry about loved ones, not to experience feelings of anger or fear. But emotions, even the most unpleasant ones, serve a very important function in our lives.

  • A controlling or regulating function. Emotions, as negative or positive experiences, govern our behavior, form motives and are the strongest stimulus. After all, every living being strives for what brings pleasure and tries to avoid unpleasant experiences.
  • Evaluative function. Emotions help to make sense of a complex world, to put our relationships in order. They evaluate everything that happens to us: both good and bad. This evaluation allows us to divide people into friends and enemies, and events into pleasant and unpleasant.
  • Protective-mobilizing function. Emotions alert us to danger, and they also activate our body’s defense mechanisms, mobilizing forces to solve the problem.
  • Signaling or expressive. Emotions play a huge role in communication, transmitting information about our condition and attitude to other people. The expressive movements that accompany emotion are an important part of non-verbal communication.
  • Synthesizing function. Emotions are a kind of “cement mortar” that connects events, images and phenomena in the memory. It is emotions that create unified blocks-complexes of events connected by experiences in the memory.

But along with the positive and undoubtedly important and necessary functions, emotional states can play a disorganizing role, that is, they can interfere with normal human actions. A feeling of fear is capable of developing into panic, which prevents normal thinking about the situation and making the right decision. Worry prevents you from concentrating on activities, such as solving a problem on a test. And love, too, can be so dizzying that a person can not think about anything else and does not evaluate their actions sensibly.

But there is a way out. A person can learn to control his emotions and submit them to the control of reason.

Classification and function of feelings in psychology

Psychology is designed to find answers to the most difficult questions about mental activity. Such questions include understanding and separating emotions, feelings. Unlike philosophers and writers, psychologists consider them comprehensively. Feelings in psychology are a set of psychophysical reactions.

The concept and stages of formation

Feeling is often confused with emotions. These phenomena of the human psyche are interrelated, but are not interchangeable. Feelings are a special form of a person’s attitude toward the world around, which occurs as a response to a match or mismatch of actual needs. They are notable for their stability and strength of expression. With their help, an individual expresses his or her attitude towards people, phenomena, objects, indicates beliefs and character traits.

Sensory reactions arise in response to an event in the individual’s life. Correct formation of reactions is necessary for the development of a harmonious healthy personality. It is an individual process that begins in early childhood. The formation is influenced by the family environment and the local culture. In Spain it is common to express feelings violently, while in Japan it is a sign of poor upbringing.

It is common to divide feelings into lower feelings and higher feelings. The lower ones are physiological manifestations: hunger and fatigue. The higher ones are manifestations associated with the spiritual world: admiration, empathy, emotional attachment. The presence of higher feelings distinguishes humans from animals.

Sensory experiences have an object attachment. The individual cannot feel them for a situation or phenomenon, only for a specific actor, an object. Feelings may have no external manifestations: while living them internally, outwardly the individual remains calm. Often they are non-verbal – unspoken.

Momentary manifestations occur when the interaction with the object was brief. In order to form a stable connection, prolonged contact is needed. This is how infatuation develops: if a person is deprived of the opportunity to see the object of adoration, infatuation quickly passes. If he or she can look at least at the portrait every day, the infatuation will only be nurtured and strengthened.

Age stages of development

The development of feelings in early childhood is an important, complex process. It occurs in stages:

  1. Newborn infant. Emerging into the world, the child owns the basic forms of expressions necessary for survival: hunger, pleasure, pain, fear. The emotional state depends on physical sensations. A newborn does not know how to distinguish feelings. His main interest and need is physical contact with his mother. The infant reacts to her mood, copies it.
  2. From 0 to 6 months. The infant understands what it feels when it has contact with adults. His perception is fragmented: he sees the world in pieces. By six months of age, he or she learns to distinguish between relatives and strangers, and anxiety and wariness appear in his or her arsenal. As he explores the world, he tries to touch everything he sees. If this fails, the infant feels anger and discomfort.
  3. 6-12 months. Half a year old babies are able to wonder and show interest. In addition to physical needs, the child has mental ones. Interests gradually form: the child divides toys into favorites and dislikes. At the age of 8 months, fear of being separated from the mother appears, the child becomes anxious and restless.
  4. 1-1,5 г. The child’s own desires and the need to fulfill them appear. The child learns to make independent decisions, but often encounters prohibitions from adults. Obstacles cause anger, the desire to get their own. At this age, it is important to learn to separate desires and actions. The main achievement of 1.5 years is that the child forms an idea of himself/herself, the baby identifies himself/herself with his/her name.
  5. 1,5-2 г. The child is no longer helpless. He moves around confidently, can pick up a toy himself, and has more freedom and needs. He wants to prove his independence, the right to his own opinion. At this age, he or she already shares feelings, but cannot name them.
  6. 2-2,5 г. Two-year-old children see themselves as the center of the world, they have no understanding of danger. Also, a sense of compassion and pity is not yet formed: if a child doesn’t like another baby, he or she may hit or bite him or her, expressing dislike.
  7. 2,5-3 г. With favorable development, by the age of three, a child will have a holistic view of himself or herself. Pride in his/her independence and shame if he/she fails appears. Interest in other children, desire to take his/her place in the group wakes up.

Development of feelings continue until the end of adolescence. The first years of life form the basis that will help the child distinguish feelings from emotions.

Qualitative Characteristics.

Feelings have characteristics that distinguish them from other emotional manifestations:

  1. Valence is a division into positive, negative and ambivalent (dual). The emergence of ambivalent manifestations indicates a wealth of life experience, a lack of categoricality. Ambivalence is characteristic of people with a high level of intelligence.
  2. Intensity is the strength of a manifestation. According to intensity, you can determine the primary and secondary feelings, assess the person’s ability to self-control, the development of willpower.
  3. Content – the importance for the person of the object in relation to which he or she displays feelings.
  4. Steniness – the urge to action, the desire to express feeling. If a person tries to hold back expression, this is called asthenicity.

The intensity of manifestation of feelings determines the behavior of the individual, the attitude of other people to him. Emotions are always sincere, and the demonstration of feelings can be pre-planned.

Functions and meaning

The task of the senses is to receive, to classify information about objects. They also have separate functions:

  • reflective – helps to assess the level of danger, the usefulness of objects, in order to react to the threat in time;
  • stimulating – encourages to take active actions, make plans for the future, to look for ways to solve complex problems, motivation;
  • reinforcing – helps to evaluate the importance of the event for the individual, to remember the important
  • it prompts to what category to put things, actions, and set priorities;
  • adaptive – forms a ready base of the manifestations which the person already experienced;
  • communicative – affects the relationship with others, the need for communication, helps to establish emotional contacts.

Only a positive social environment can ensure the normal functioning of functions. If the function malfunctions, the person’s emotional intelligence does not develop. A low level of emotional intelligence is characteristic of children who were brought up in a disadvantaged environment.

Extreme manifestation of pedagogical neglect is found in the Mowgli children who grew up away from people. They do not distinguish the expressions of other people, they are not able to express feelings. Their psychological development is at the level of a baby ape.

Classification by type and sphere of manifestation

Feelings are diverse and sometimes a person can not explain what he is experiencing. To simplify the evaluation process, we should use the classification of types of feelings in psychology:

  1. Subjective – refer to the basic spheres of human reality. They show a reaction to various actions of others: irritation, delight, surprise, anger.
  2. Intellectual – the desire for new impressions: curiosity, anticipation, doubt.
  3. Aesthetic – reaction to beautiful and ugly objects: experience of admiration, disgust, pleasure, dissatisfaction.
  4. Praxical – connected with a choice of activity. Determine the attitude to duties: purposefulness, thirst for knowledge, satisfaction.
  5. Moral – are responsible for the interaction of people, personal evaluation of the permitted, the unacceptable: patriotism, love, cruelty, selfishness.

Complex feelings cannot be attributed to one category – they are always a bundle of 2-3 different experiences. For example, love can stimulate knowledge, a change of activity, or the discovery of one’s potential. Resentment can cause irritation, despair, apathy.

Influence on mood

In psychology, mood is the emotional state at a particular moment in time. Mood is rarely accompanied by a strong emotional reaction, but it affects all kinds of activities. It creates a background, which determines the speed and efficiency of work. Normally, mood is stable. In individuals with a strong nervous system, it changes less frequently, and in sensitive people, the change occurs frequently.

Moods have an objectless nature. Even if a person understands what exactly was causing discontent, a bad mood extends to activities, relationships. Moods affect feelings. In a bad mood, people feel irritated, unfair to themselves. In a good mood, they are ready for unselfish actions, favorable treatment of an unpleasant person.

Similarities and differences with emotions

Emotions and feelings in psychology have an inseparable connection: they form the emotional background. Often the individual sees no difference between them. But they differ in duration, depth, degree of manifestation.

A feeling is a deep, stable human attitude toward an event or phenomenon. It is often hidden, it can be consciously suppressed, masked. Emotions are more difficult to contain. They occur as a short burst, a fleeting reaction. Emotions manifest unconsciously. Feelings are conscious manifestations, aimed at a specific goal. Emotions can be experienced without an external stimulus. For example, an individual experiences intense emotional excitement when he listens to music, watches a movie. He empathizes with the fictional characters.

Experiencing emotions, the person gives a subjective assessment of what is happening. It depends on the characteristics of his nervous system: phlegmatic little emotional, and choleric hard to restrain yourself. Sanguine easily experience strong emotions, they cause inconvenience to the melancholic. Change the features of the nervous system is impossible, but to learn to control emotions is possible. To do this, the individual must distinguish between emotions and feelings, and not be afraid of the negative spectrum of emotions.

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