What are Feelings?

What are Feelings? Feelings and emotions are not one-and-the-same although these words are often used interchangeably. To keep it simple, feelings are the physcial sensations we experience in our body and emotions are the labels we give those sensations in our minds.

Mind-Body & the Vagus Nerve

A part of the mind-body connection that plays a huge role in these physcial sensations we often refer to as feelings is the Vagus Nerve System. It extends from the mid-brain all the way down the mid-line into the abdomen.

If you can picture a tree root system, you have a good idea of the Vagus Nerve System. It consists of a long "taproot" of nerves with smaller bundles of nerves branching off to the vital organs in the thoracic region.

So, Exactly What are Feelings vs. Emotions?

In order to understand what are feelings vs. emotions, it is important to cover a few basics about the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS consists of branches of nerves within the central nervous system (CNS).

Within the ANS are two primary branches of nerve fibers referred to as the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the para-sympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS consists of the "on-switch" and circuitry for the fight-or-flight response. The PNS is the "on-switch" and circuitry for the relaxation response.

The SNS is responsible for preparing the mind-and-body to respond to a threat while the (PNS) acts to restore homeostasis by returning the body to its accustomed steady-state. Part of the PNS is the Vagus Nerve, which is the 10th of 12 cranial nerves running from the brain into various parts of the body, in this case from the mid-brain, down the mid-line of the body (i.e., through the jaw, throat, chest, solar plexus, stomach, into the lower gut right behind the belt buckle, including the genitalia).

Vagus means "wandering." This wandering nerve branches out through the whole thoracic region connecting to every vital organ. The primary function of the vagus nerve is to send signals from the vital organs back to the brain so the brain can monitor and regulate them.

Eighty to ninety percent of the fibers in the vagus nerve are afferent nerves - meaning they carry information from the organs to the brain. Ten to twenty percent of the fibers are efferent nerves - meaning they carry information to the organs from the brain. This suggests that along with monitoring of the vital organs and homeostatic regulation functions, the vagus nerve is also an important part of an information highway between the mind-and-body.

A "feeling" is a physiological sensation we experience that develops somewhere along the mid-line. It may be the proverbial tightness in the chest, clenching of the teeth, butterflies in the stomach, a lump in the throat, tension in the neck and shoulders, or some other sensation. So a feeling in this sense is a communication coming from the body to the mind.

When that physical sensation reaches our awareness (in the mind) it is supposed to trigger a database search as if asking the question, "What is that?" The pre-frontal cortex (the thinking brain) does that search and consults the amygdala in the feeling brain, aka the limbic system. It then chooses an answer in the form of an emotional label. When the feeling is assigned a label, it becomes an emotion.

In the ideal situation, this body-mind communication results in an accurate interpretation of the feeling followed by a suitable response to that communication - either in the form of an expression (getting it out, releasing it, sharing it with another person) or in the form of taking some sort of appropriate action (e.g., taking a day off if the emotion, say frustration, is related to working too much).

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What are Feelings For?

In a moderate-to-severely dysfunctional family, these healthy emotional coping skills were not taught. In fact, one reason we may find it difficult to answer the question, What are Feelings? is because the typically unspoken rule in a dysfunctional family is "Don't Feel." When certain needs or feelings began to surface they had to be ignored, disowned, distorted, discounted, repressed or otherwise pushed back out of awareness.

Two more dysfunctional rules we learned to follow are "Don't Trust" and "Don't Talk" because the dysfunctional family is not a safe place to do so. These three rules of a dysfunctional family are important for survival, but they are also powerful contributors to the development of frozen feeling-states. These rules are a direct cause of such clinical descriptions as emotional arrest. One cannot obey these rules and learn to cope with feelings in a healthy way.

Healthy emotional coping has to be learned and any learning requires practice. Is it any wonder that we react in child-like ways when triggered into the fight-or-flight mode? Learning to break these rules is a requirement of change. Developing healthy emotional coping skills to provide an alternative to the skills we learned to survive on the battlefield will be a major focus of healing and recovery.

Healthy emotional expression can be learned and practiced from within the "safe container" of an emotionally intimate relationship. Below are the elements of healthy emotional coping:

  • Know how to answer the question: "What are feelings?"
  • Learn to allow feelings to exist (vs pushing them away)
  • Learn to give the feeling a label so you can put it into words
  • Develop a safe relationship with someone you can trust
  • Learn to reach out and share with this safe and trusted other person
  • Develop the ability to give and receive attention in this relationship