Thoughts-Feelings-Actions

by Monica Ross

I have an idea for the next series of blog posts that I’ll try to tackle. One of the therapeutic approaches that I use with clients is CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s an evidence-based approach and by that I mean there is research behind its effectiveness as a therapeutic tool. The crux of CBT is the idea that our thoughts influence our feelings, which in turn influence our actions or behaviors. ThoughtsàFeelingsàActions

This is how an example of that might come into play. I use a fictional example for this every time I go into explaining it. So for this fictional example let’s say that a 27 year old female comes into therapy feeling depressed.

We know she is depressed because we look at her actions. She has a loss of appetite. She is over sleeping. She feels fatigued. She can’t concentrate. Okay, so there is a clear picture of her current actions or behavior.

Let’s take a step back and look at what she is feeling. She reports a daily feeling of being sad or empty. She feels a sense of meaninglessness and purposelessness.

She states that she feels intensely sad virtually every day, so much so that she has crying spells that happen at random and inconvenient times. She might be at a restaurant for what appears to be a lovely evening with her spouse and a break away from the kids when she starts to cry and is not able to stop for over an hour.

Maybe she has these types of crying spells at work as well. That is how she is feeling and a little bit more about her actions or behaviors. Okay step back, now thoughts. What is this 27 year old woman thinking that might be influencing how she is feeling and how she is behaving?

Let’s say that she is grieving the loss of someone that she loved. Maybe she had father whom she was really very close with. Let’s say that for much of her life she was estranged from him over things that he had done in the past, but that when he was diagnosed with cancer a year ago they became closer.

They put all those other things behind them. Maybe he was her only surviving parent. So it was worth it to her to try to repair the relationship. Maybe this woman currently has a single episode of major depression that is tied to her deep feelings of loss and that are fueled by unhelpful thoughts.

What might be her thoughts? I can think of a host of things in this case example. Everyone comes into therapy with their own set of values, experiences, personality traits, etc. that fuel his or her thinking. But that is not to say that there are some thoughts that are common thoughts that any one in any given similar situation and with a similar background and set of experiences might also have.

In therapy we use the word “normalizing” which means simply that for each of us it is normal to feel or act a certain way given a similar situation. So back to our example, let’s say that some of this woman’s thoughts are the following “I regret all those years that I wasn’t speaking with my father, that was wasted time.”

Or “I don’t see now how I’m supposed to live the rest of my life without either parent, how many people lose both their parents at such a young age?” Or how about “My kids will never know what it’s like to have grandparents seeing as my husband is estranged from both of his parents.”

These strike me as very common, very logical thoughts to be having for someone who is depressed and in a similar situation. But these thoughts lead down the “there’s no hope or point to all” trail. That trail is the trail of fear, of lifelessness. We don’t want to go down that trail.

So what then? Eckhart Tolle says that“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.”  There is power in that statement. It’s a quote I put front and center on the homepage of my website. It means that for any given situation, regardless of what the situation is, we have the power in any given moment to change our thinking about it.

With the idea being, that by changing our thinking we can change how we are feeling and how we are behaving. This is so true and so crucial to much of the work done in therapy.

It’s about looking at these automatic thoughts that we all have and really examining where they are coming from. How have these thoughts come about and based on what trauma with a little t or capital T?

Those same values, experiences, personality traits, what have you that I mentioned earlier...they shape us into the person we are today. We take our experiences and come to form core beliefs about our very selfhood. Those beliefs in turn influence how we view others and how we view our world.

What I want to try to do next, as I said, is tackle each unhelpful thinking style that is part of the 10 unhelpful thinking styles that are the foundation of CBT. But let’s start here and with this—the simple idea that our thoughts influence our feelings which in turn influence our actions.