Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all connected. This might come as a surprise, but they all directly influence one another, for good and bad. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, we often refer to this as the CBT Triangle.
What is the CBT Triangle?
As the diagram above of the CBT triangle shows, your thoughts affect your feelings and your behaviors. Likewise, your feelings affect your thoughts and behaviors, and your behaviors affect your feelings and thoughts.
CBT is an approach to therapy that helps you counteract negative thoughts (as well as condition positive, supportive thoughts), feelings (how to tolerate unpleasant ones and cultivate helpful ones), and behaviors (how to take action that is helpful and stop actions that get in the way). One powerful way to modify the automatic cycle seen above is by correcting what is called our maladaptive thoughts, which we can think of as thoughts that don’t serve us.
Your Thoughts Influence Your Feelings Which Impacts Your Behaviors (and vice versa)
We’ll use this specific example to simplify how each of the three areas influences one another. Let’s pretend you are in a situation where someone you love hasn’t called you back.
Initial thought responses: “They’re mad at me,” “They don’t like me,” “I wonder if they are ok,” or “Did they get hurt or in an accident?”
Our brains will cycle through all the negative reasons, initially, on why we are not receiving the phone call back. We tend to look at the worst-case scenario first. This is a very unfortunate aspect of how our brains evolved BUT with training we can manage this.
Our emotional response to the thoughts: You may feel sad or depressed, thinking that person is mad at you. You may feel anxious or nervous, wondering what you did to upset them. It’s even possible that your stomach feels like it’s in knots, literally making yourself sick over the well-being of your friend or loved one. For some of us, emotions are felt in a very physical manner. It is helpful to think of this part of the triangle as feelings (body sensations and emotions).
When you think negative thoughts, your body will typically respond in the same way. As your brain cycles through the what-ifs, your nervous system will begin to sense that something is wrong. And this is when our anxiety symptoms strike the hardest because our nervous system is in overdrive. This is why our hearts feel like they’re beating out of our chests or our breathing becomes rapid.
Our behavioral response to our emotions: You may begin to cry, stress-eat, or become fidgety and restless. Our physical reactions to certain events are the effects of our thoughts spiraling out of control, causing our nervous system to be overstimulated. We may even repeatedly call or text this person hoping they will answer.
The cycle continues: This behavior then influences your thoughts to become even more erratic, which worsens your physical symptoms and causes you to react accordingly.
As you can see, it’s a domino effect. And the truth is that we can find ourselves very quickly caught up in an unhelpful CBT triangle or multiple CBT triangles, where our thoughts and feelings and emotions spiral out of control.
Alternate response: Instead of immediately thinking something is wrong with you, challenge your thoughts. Let’s modify how we think about this stranger. For example, we can tell ourselves “Maybe they’re just having a bad day. They could be lost in thought and didn’t even see me.” Notice how even in this physical example you may feel different reading the alternative, more helpful thought. This is the power of our thoughts and of Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
Flip The Switch and Modify Your Thoughts and Behaviors
As we saw in the example above, feelings and behaviors are impacted by negative thoughts. So let’s flip the switch on this situation and see how different it could be when we counteract our thoughts with something positive.
Initial thought response: “They must be busy,” “Maybe they didn’t hear my message yet,” or, “Maybe they are still at work or doing something with their family.”
That’s much more positive, and supportive right? Instead of jumping to worst-case scenarios, we are rationally explaining the unreturned phone call.
Our emotional response: You may still feel sad because you were looking forward to speaking with this person. However, because you reframed your thoughts into something more positive, you won’t feel anything negative like anxiety, stomach aches, or crying.
Our behavioral response: Since you are rationally reacting to your thoughts, you’ll be able to move on with your day until your person calls you back.
If you try to challenge your thoughts and you still don’t feel any different, it can also be very helpful to focus on changing your behavior. Here, instead of re-reading the texts and thinking the same thoughts over and over again, you could do anything different, like go for a walk outside, or call a friend that makes you laugh.
Just changing your behavior can have the helpful impact of chaining your thoughts and feelings.
CBT Helps You Re-Train Your Brain
While these examples were pretty simple, they illustrate how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors influence one another. There needs to be a balance in all three areas so that your brain can rationally and emotionally react to the situation when one goes out of whack.
By engaging in CBT, you can re-train your brain to react in more positive ways by learning to approach your thinking differently and by becoming aware of what actions (or inactions) make you feel a certain way. If you’re struggling to cope with stressful situations and feel like it is out of your control, or just want to improve your ability to cope with life, CBT can really help your mind, body, and spirit get and stay on the right track.
CBT is a very powerful therapy approach. Over the years, I’ve seen CBT help many individuals learn brain science based tools to manage mood and thrive. If you’re ready to begin your journey of not letting emotions and thoughts control your life anymore, please feel free to reach out to me. Click to read more about in office Cognitive Behavior Therapy or Online CBT.
I am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Hawaii and an Accredited CBT Therapist in the UK with over 15 years of experience. I specialize in anxiety treatments and have received advanced specialist training in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Compassion Focused Therapy. Please feel free to contact me at my Honolulu or London clinic to set up an Online CBT Test Drive.