Cognitive Behavioral Therapy examines the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions. Its aim is to help a client understand how thinking affects feelings and impacts behavior. An important tenant of cognitive behavioral therapy is that while these three factors have significant impact on one another, they are three different and separate factors. Through intentional examination of each – thoughts, feelings, and actions – insight into oneself can be achieved and maladaptive patterns broken.
First, thoughts are the stories and images that we tell ourselves. Thoughts can be influenced by the present moment and can be related to present consciousness, but they can also be influenced by the past and concerns about the future. They can present as words and/or as images.
Secondly, feelings are an emotional state, largely a reaction to our thoughts and/or circumstances. Utilizing a feelings wheel like the one below is a great way to identify what you are feeling in the moment.
Finally, behaviors are the external expressions and responses to thoughts and feelings and choices.
So often this process feels automatic. An important part of the CBT process is to identify thoughts, feelings, and actions. Writing out thoughts, recognizing emotions, and understanding how each of these are playing a role in actions. It’s then cyclical – actions then also impact thoughts and feelings, and the cycle continues to spin. CBT throws a cog in the wheel long enough to slow it down and observe it, long enough to examining the patterns.
Below is an example of this relationship:
Thoughts are powerful.
Consider this: You are home alone one night, winding down for the evening. You hear a rustling against the window. You think: “It’s a tree hitting the window.” You finish getting ready for bed and quickly fall asleep soundly. You think: “It’s robber trying to break into the house.” You feel anxious, repeatedly check the windows and locks. You have trouble falling asleep.
Try this one with me: Close your eyes and think of a negative thought, memory, or image. Notice how this thought impacts your feelings. Think about the last time you were anxious. What impact does anxiety have on your body? Notice whether your muscles tense; whether your heart beats faster; whether you feel dizzy or you get a headache or stomachache.
Next think of a positive thought, memory, or image and notice how it impacts your body. How do you feel right now? What sensations do you notice in your body? Notice whether your muscles relax; your heartbeat slows; whether you breathe more slowly or your tension melts away, etc.
See how impactful thoughts are on the body?
Two challenges: (1) Take some time this week to notice the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. (2) Take some time to journal your thoughts, feelings, and actions at least two times this week.