Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the most researched therapeutic approaches for anxiety disorders, uses cognitive and behavioral techniques to help people manage their mental health difficulties (see my previous article).
CBT makes several assumptions, the first of which I will discuss in today’s article.
Assumption: Thoughts, behaviors, and feelings are interconnected
To explain this assumption using an example, I first need to remind you of Jane’s story from two posts ago. Recall that Jane had experienced strong emotions right after her good friend Fiona mentioned that she was soon relocating to another city. Jane had left Fiona’s home right away, and had refused to return Fiona’s calls the next day.
But what if the next day Jane decided to jot down her thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from the day before? If Jane had done so and was willing to share her writings with us, they might look like this:
Thoughts: Fiona does not care about me. Her moving away is painful enough but her giving me short notice of it is just adding insult to the injury. I was rejected; it’s as simple as that.
Emotions: I feel rejected and hurt. I also feel anger. Lots and lots of anger.
Behaviors: I left Fiona’s home immediately. I just could not stay. I have also refused to return her calls today.
While looking at Jane’s writings, think back to CBT’s first assumption: That emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are interconnected (see Figure 1). Can you see how, in Jane’s case, the three sides of the triangle influence each other?
For example, think about the emotions Jane was feeling right after she heard that Fiona was relocating. If Jane had felt less angry, she may have been able to think more rationally; Jane could have given Fiona more of a chance to explain herself and her rather sudden decision to move.
Similarly, Jane’s behaviors, such as leaving right away or not answering the phone the next day, made it practically impossible for Fiona to provide any information that could challenge Jane’s view of the events. Therefore, Jane continued to think negative thoughts and feel unpleasant emotions about having been rejected.
Lastly, Jane’s thoughts, meaning her interpretation of the events (Did Fiona wait so long to tell Jane she was moving because she does not care about Jane?) influenced how Jane felt (hurt and rejected) and behaved (leaving right away, refusing to answer calls).
This leads us to CBT’s second assumption, which I will discuss next week.
I am going to conclude today’s article with a discussion of an exercise you can do at home. Starting today, I will be including these “try this yourself” exercises in order to explain or clarify some of the concepts that have been discussed.
The present exercise is intended to help you see how your own thoughts, emotions, and actions are interconnected.
The first step is to make a table (further explained below). Then think back to a few recent unpleasant emotional experiences. Write down what happened, what you were thinking, how you were feeling, and how you behaved. See if you can discover the connection between them all.
Someone who for privacy reasons shall remain nameless, gave me permission to share with you their attempt at doing a similar exercise. They sent me the table below. This person, who is an animal lover, had recently come across a graphic picture of a dead animal, which triggered a number of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
I should note that some variants of today’s exercise include a column for “consequences,” like this person has, and you may do include one if you like. For those who can not see the table, it includes five columns: Situation, Thoughts, Feelings, Behaviors, and Consequences.
Hopefully this example—or if you have trouble viewing the table, at least Jane’s attempt at this exercise discussed earlier—has clarified how to do this task. If you decide to do the task during this coming week, but end up finding it difficult to do, or if you happen to enjoy it, let others knows. New perspectives help.
Till next week.