Feeling, Sensation, and Emotion

Feeling and Sensation

First, some semantics are in order. All feelings are a perceptions by the mind of a change in the body.* A change in the body may be a response to what is happening outside the body (with or without physical contact), or reflect the motility and internal functioning of the body. The environment is only known by its effect on the body. A body that is not affected much by the environment has little feeling. Chronic muscle tension hinders changes in the body and reduces feeling. Self awareness arises from feeling. It is the totality of all body feelings at any given time.

Feelings are either sensations or emotions, although in the latter case, the feeling is only part of the emotion..

A sensation is a feeling that has no emotional aspect. Sensations of course can be and frequently are judged desirable or undesirable, but judgment is not emotion. Pain is a sensation that usually indicates damage. Pain is a sensation not an emotion but it often provokes emotion. Sensation varies in intensity and many people find strong or even medium levels of sensation hard to endure. The mind tends to 'tune out' to all feeling that it deems unimportant or about which it intends to do nothing. This is the basis of suppression and denial. Sensation is a reliable union of the body and the mind since, without a body to experience a change, the mind cannot have a sensation, and without a mind to sense it, a change in the body produces no sensation Perhaps this underlies the Buddhist saying "You are sensation."

Emotions affect actions both through the felt and the unconscious aspects, but this is quite variable from person to person. Muscle tension and emotional armoring decrease both sensation and emotion, but there may be relative sparing of sensation since this is neutral and less threatening or conflictual. Chemical intoxicants (including endorphins) blunt feeling including sensation, but may release some emotion because emotion is more than feeling. This intoxicated release does no durable good for the emotional health of a person, because, besides being distorted, it is not felt.

In English the word feeling is often used as a synonym for emotion. In everyday use this is probably not confusing, but as will become clearer in the discussion below, there is a need to distinguish the two to understand the 'emotional economy' of humans. Also the word feeling is used to mean 'opinion,' 'tentative conclusion' , or 'ideological position.' These extended meanings derive from the definition above because folk wisdom has always understood that decisions and principles of living are based on bodily integrity and pleasure. In the modern culture, though, where unfeeling cognition is promoted, the term feeling can be misused to describe 'fuzzy' cognition.

Anxiety, though often a feeling, is not an emotion, but rather a holding against emotion. Anxiety usually provokes the emotion fear because its origin is not understood and the mind tends to look for threats when anxiety is present. Shame is a distressing feeling that probably is best not understood as an emotion either. Anxiety and shame both drive behavior strongly, but the behavior tends to deny, obscure, and avoid the stimulus unlike the emotions that tend to involve the person and the stimulus together.

* This is the definition of Antonio Damasio as well as Alexander Lowen † The change in the body may still have effects elsewhere in the body, but this is reflexive or physiological and not a response to sensation


Emotions appear in three different realms, subjective experience (feeling), behavior, and physiological responses (including 'energy'). As such, emotions have the potential to be very unifying to the person. However, these component aspects of emotions may vary independently of each other, giving the description of emotional life a very elusive aspect. Modern study of psychology (even the 'touchy-feely' variety) often eschews emotional concepts because of this inconsistency. A certain amount of of inconsistency, however, does not equal randomness and meaninglessness. Emotions can be understood and that is a basic task in the Reich and Lowen tradition.

Emotions are at base, involuntary body responses to events or people in the environment. As reflections of what is happening, they are neither good or bad, but just are. Examples of emotions are fear, anger, joy, sadness, terror, disgust, and mirth, among others. The subjective experience of emotion is based upon the mind's perception of the bodily response. However, the perception is not necessary for the emotion to be present. All perception requires some movement and change, and the perception of emotion is no different. If a person is locked into a bodily state, they may reasonably be said to be locked into one emotion. Eventually the conscious perception of even this one emotion fades. It is common to see people whose bodily attitude indicates fear or shame but who are unaware of it subjectively. These emotion states are still operative however. I use the examples of fear and shame because overwhelmingly, these are the two emotional states that get 'locked in' easily because they are contraction-based and contraction is much stickier than expansion.

In humans at least, memory, explicit and implicit, is able to change the bodily state enough to evoke emotion, and therefore emotion may not reflect the present state of affairs outside the person. This makes human attachment and bonding possible, and deep loving relationships would be impossible otherwise. This is the positive side of internalized object relations. But the imposition of memory into the experience-body response-emotion loop also makes the trauma response possible.

Stated another way, the emotional (that is body-response) history of the person greatly affects his or her present response. That is why, at a reunion with a loved and trusted one, the body is able to experience great joy. Unfortunately, this effect of the past is greatest where there has been suffering or trauma. Perhaps this is because contraction is more self-perpetuating than expansion. I call this misfortunate tendency disappointment.

Emotions are often lumped together and confused with conditioned reactions. Like all conditioning, reactions are based on past experience and meant to be anticipatory. The conditioned reactions most often confused with emotion are defensive ones that increase arousal and initiate fight or flight mechanisms. Early relational difficulties instill a set of conditioned reactions that tend to make later social interactions contentious and so the conditioning tends to be self-renewing and even progressive. While reactions usually have some trigger, they speak far, far more to a person's history than to the present situation. Because of the irradiating aspect of conditioning, conditioned reactions tend to be increasingly frequent. 'knee-jerk' and invariable over time. By contrast, emotion becomes more fine-tuned with maturity and experience.

Conditioned reactions often produce behavioral displays that are jarring to others. Strong emotion may elicit displays as well but they will be less jarring to others if those others are in sync with what is happening. Conditioned reactions do usually evolve out of difficult to tolerate emotional states such as shame, disgust, fear, guilt, hopelessness, and helplessness. The reaction is meant to avoid feeling these emotional states again. There is an inverse relationship between reactivity and emotion, If the two are lumped together, there will be great confusion about what is healthy and desirable, and that confusion is evident in most psychotherapy approaches outside the Reich and Lowen tradition.

The very strongest reactions have been called 'vehement emotion' by Pierre Janet. These episodes usually present as rage, terror, or panic. Vehement emotions, are not so much emotion as they are the behavioral manifestations of very high states of arousal. These reactions are dissociative, and have the following elements: 1) loss of a sense of self, 2) loss of observing ego, 3) loss of attachment and bonding, and 4) loss of contact with the body. This is almost the opposite of functional emotion. Usually the person later repudiates the actions and statements and cannot or does not integrate the affective tone, even in a more moderate form. These are actually minor dissociative episodes, from approach-avoidance conflicts or past trauma.

Frustration is not emotion. Frustration tension in mind and body when a person is not able to get what they need or want. In early life frustration is pivotal in emotional development. if experienced in a moderate degree it helps the establishment of the reality principle. If experienced in a sever degree, normal development is overwhelmed and a host of maladaptive patterns arise. As a teen or adult, frustration can result unnecessarily from being too rigid or narrow in defining what one wants or 'must have'. A creative approach to life implies enough flexibility to find alternate routes of satisfaction. It is possible to experience frustration but not know what one wants. Work with self-expression is indicated. A tendency to frustration is probably increased by an overall state of muscle tension, and this can become a circle

Emotions are irreplaceable aids to navigating a life, but not just that. The direct physiological effects of emotions appear central to regulating the health of the human organism. Facial expressions are associated consistently with the same emotions from culture to culture, indicating the common biological basis (but of course in interpreting, the voluntary control of the ego over part of the face is a complication). Importantly, a great deal of any emotional state is reflected in the body below the neck.

Increasingly in our culture emotions are considered disruptions or distractions and not true guides. This is surely misguided. As mentioned above, the aberrations of the past will at times bring a mismatch between present emotion and present environment, but this cannot be used to discredit emotion generally. Everyday observation will confirm that physical vitality, the prevalence of good feelings, and strong relationships only exist in persons where emotion is freely expressed. Any given instance of emotion may complicate things, but in the long run, comfort with one's emotions leads to a certain ease in facing life, and the asset of conviction.

There is a worry that emotion will undermine self-determination. This arises mainly in two cases. One is rage, which as a dysregulated distortion of anger which, like other vehement emotions mentioned above, does merit special care. No irreversible or hard-to-reverse action should be taken when upset. The other case is one in which unedited self-expression will displease someone and lead to a unjust loss. This latter danger exists of course, but it is from toxicity of the other person, and one should not model a life around navigating it.

Emotion ideally is ahistorical, that is reflecting the present situation only. This avoids the unnecessary contamination of memory, although it also forgoes the balancing of 'taking into account' the entire positive history of a relationship. While emotions are ahistorical, a mature person need not be. Emotions are the motor of response not the steering wheel.

While this will be a controversial generalization, women are more 'in touch' with emotion than men, on average, and this will affect inclinations on how relationships and courses of action are pursued. Women have always been depended upon to do 'more than their share' of emotional work for families and groups, and this continues today even though it cannot be acknowledged as easily. It is considered 'dis-empowering' to describe anyone, woman or otherwise, as 'more emotional' since there is an antithesis between emotion (actually all feeling) and power.

At times, hostility is mistakenly lumped with emotion, which of course gives emotion a bad name. Hostility is universally recognized as a uncompleted defensive process that involves fear, perception of threat, and inability to be direct or express one's own interests directly. Besides the fear, however, hostility is not an emotion but a pattern of ego response, and the unpleasantness it creates is not due to emotion.

In a free and natural environment, emotions do tend toward action. They do this by activating, in an incipient sense the muscles, that would be used in the action. Because emotions have this 'action tendency', they make 'work' (doing things) possible or easier. However, the exact actions are not a foregone conclusion but shaped dynamically as the person acts (this is self-possession). Emotions can explain an action, but they are never justification for an action (except perhaps, the act of self-expression.)

It is not possible to choose emotions, but it is possible to choose activities that are likely to elicit emotion. This is why people may go to a happy, sad, or horror movie. There is no recipe of emotions for well-being, rather it is the capacity to respond emotionally to what is happening that matters. As stated above, emotions tend to be prompted by changes in the environment, and emotions decay in sameness. Some people become very rigid in routines over time. In avoiding changes they are avoiding emotions. People more comfortable with emotion may travel a lot or try new things. They are seeking emotion (as well as pleasure.) Of course, real emotional response is based on really being involved. Watching a movie affects the body as long as the experience is not to frequent and taken seriously because the body is 'fooled' into feeling it is real. With a deluge of entertainment, the body is no longer fooled, only the mind, and so the mind is affected and the body is detached.

Muscles can be held rigidly in check and this has the effect of suppressing emotion, selectively at first but globally as muscle tension forms into rigid patterns--muscular armor. The same mechanism that stops emotion, muscle tension, also stops pleasure. A tense person may be irritable but this is a problem with arousal, not true emotion. Emotions like grief or sadness are associated with the subjective experience of suffering but the greatest suffering of our time comes from emotionlessness and the accompanying pleasurelessness.

Relationships (those that are not purely practical exchanges) develop through the sharing of pleasure and exchange of emotion. 'Small talk' has the function of exchanging emotion without exchanging any significant information. Too much information crowds out emotion. People low in emotion always have trouble with small talk because they can only think of communication as the exchange of information.

Emotion interacts with quite a few things--cognition, memories, autonomic state, beliefs, pain, and suffering, which all affect emotions, but it is not accurate to state that these cause emotion. Life causes emotion, to the extent that the person is living. Emotions are not truly complete or completely felt unless they are expressed. In humans, language is strongly developed and word choice (symbolic expression) can go a long way in expressing emotion, but for those that are not great poets, movement and voice quality are necessary for full expression.


To restate, in our time, emotion is often confused with judgment or appraisal. An appraisal is a brain-based judgment about the significance, benefit, or detriment of an event or person in the environment. One type of appraisal in limbic (mid-brain) based, and implicit. This appraisal makes itself known to the mind through feeling. The second type of appraisal is cortical (cerebral cortex) and explicit. This appraisal is free of feeling and has the potential to be 'objective'. In the study of human behavior, the interaction of the two types of appraisal is of some interest. Calm cortical appraisal is nowadays often touted as the superior replacement to both implicit reasoning and emotions. This is of course based on the reduction of emotions to information (which they partly are) but missing the biological and relationship building aspects. Limbic appraisal will affect emotions, but mainly through an effect on arousal. If there is a conflict between limbic and cortical appraisal, limbic appraisal seems to win usually, but the person may believe they are following cortical appraisal. Both types of appraisal certainly affect behavior and mood.

To the extent that the ego has a definite idea of the way things should be, there is often a perturbation of the mind when things aren't this way. Again, this is a cognitive product, an appraisal, not an emotion, although there may be underlying fear. Interestingly enough, TV sitcoms are almost always based on this perturbation rather than feeling.

Related also is adult frustration. Frustration is a state of tension in mind and body that arises when a drive is blocked. In early life, drives are instinctual and seek basic human needs and wants. Frustration in this arena, if excessive, is unfortunate, and Reich and Lowen wrote extensively about the sequelae. If early frustration is modest, the experience is part of development. However, in either case, frustration is not chosen. However, emerging from childhood, drives may become misdirected, or focused on what is seen a means to an end. When there is a rigidity and inability to turn to other objectives, the tension is related to an appraisal of 'what must be' This is adult frustration, which is voluntary, unlike emotion which is involuntary. See the section on desire.

Cognitive therapy attempts to make life better by managing cortical appraisal, but in so doing, reduces life to just voluntary instrumental behavior. To be fair, inaccurate appraisal clearly has a role in suffering, but the solution to re-regulating appraisal is more spontaneous emotion, not less.

The Symbolization of Emotion

Humans are able to represent experiences in words and ideas. This is part of symbolic thought. Emotions are more than experiences, but at least the experience of emotion can be represented symbolically. It allows much greater versatility in interacting with others. For instance, it is possible to say "I am angry" to another without any physical action. This is considered part of maturity. The capacity for symbolic thought and expression is considered vital in children. Children are counseled "use your words" at a very young age to hopefully hasten the process. The understanding of experience can certainly be enhanced by having that experience named.

Symbols are useful if the people using them have regular contact with the actual thing. A potential problem with language and intellect is that symbols can take on a life of their own and continue to be used where the experience symbolized has faded or never been experienced. Words naming emotions can become meaningless or start to be used to merely denote elements of justice or morality. A foundational undertaking in the Reich and Lowen tradition is bringing actual emotion into a session and into a life. The composure which is a by-product of the symbolization of emotion is not itself bad, but it has nothing to do with self-possession, which is based on 'holding' (as in possessing, different from holding back) emotion, not distancing from it. At times, it is necessary to block devitalized and hollow verbal expression to allow attention to fall on a bodily state and an experience. Importantly, the bodily effects of emotion cannot be replaced by symbols.

A Visual Depiction of Emotion as Body Feeling

I have come across a Finnish study that used subject reports to map where feeling was increased and decreased during particular emotions. As far as I know, these researchers had no Reich and Lowen affiliation, but their model is in surprising agreement. Here is the graphic they produced. Notice that these researchers have included the powerful feeling states of anxiety and shame as emotion.

Map of Emotions

People drew maps of body locations where they feel basic emotions (top row) and more complex ones (bottom row). Hot colors show regions that people say are stimulated during the emotion. Cool colors indicate deactivated areas. // Image courtesy of Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen. From: Bodily maps of emotions Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari and Jari K. Hietanen Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America (PNAS) Retrievable as http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/12/26/1321664111.full.pdf

The colors indicate nothing about the 'valence' (pleasantness or unpleasantness) of an emotion but only the location and amount of feeling. The contrast between happiness (full of feeling) and depression (numb) is both visually striking and certainly confirmatory of Alexander Lowen's formulation. Also notice that the feet have strong feeling only in happiness ('joy') love, anger and to a lesser extent, fear. The upward displacement in pride really stands out. Abundant further observations can be made by the reader and compared to Lowen's descriptions.