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Learning your ABCs: How thoughts influence feelings and behaviour (and what to do about them!)

In my most popular blog post, I discussed the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and introduced a model often known as the cognitive diamond. The cognitive diamond helps us to understand how our thoughts, feelings, behaviours and even physical or bodily symptoms are interlinked and can influence each other. This can be very helpful when we struggle to identify unhelpful or erroneous thoughts – it’s a great “way in” to begin understanding our own unique patterns of responses to various events. In this blog, I'm focusing on how our thoughts affect our feelings and behaviour, and how we can use thought diaries to address them.

One of the fundamental principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is that our feelings are not caused by an event or situation in and of itself, but by our interpretations, judgements and evaluations of that event or situation. In other words, our thoughts are ultimately responsible for our feelings, behaviour and physical symptoms. For instance, an upcoming assessment might make us feel anxious, jittery and avoidant, but the assessment itself doesn’t cause those feelings or behaviours; it’s our interpretation of the assessment that has an impact. In coaching and therapeutic settings, we spend time unpicking those interpretations, but you can do this yourself, too. All it takes is some awareness, practice, and discipline – three things that dancers are usually familiar with!

I mentioned in the previous post that psychology is often concerned with the ABCs: affect (how we feel); behaviour (how we act); and cognitions (how we think). While that is certainly true, in CBT we learn a different version of the ABCs: we talk about an Activating event; our Beliefs (thoughts and interpretations) about that event; and the Consequences of the event – which can be emotional and/or behavioural.

Let’s say that the upcoming assessment is the activating event (A). This might result in certain emotional (e.g. feeling anxious, nervous and uncertain) and behavioural (e.g. withdrawing from others) consequences (C). But the assessment itself does not cause those feelings or behaviours – it’s a neutral event; neither positive nor negative. Our beliefs (B) about the assessment are what cause the consequences. Perhaps we believe that it will be too difficult, that we will perform badly, that others will judge us negatively. These beliefs are often based on similar previous situations, as our brains attempt to predict what will happen. They are usually automatic, in that we are not consciously thinking them, and may not even be aware of them.

Using the CBT model, we begin by identifying and then challenging these automatic beliefs. Identifying automatic beliefs can be difficult at first, which is why thought diaries are so helpful. Thought diaries are essentially a systematic form of journaling, which can help us to put a difficult situation into perspective and find new ways of interpreting it. Download the worksheet and have a go, following these instructions:

Think about a recent situation that gave rise to some difficult feelings. Write a brief summary of the event in the first column, and then note down each emotion you felt in relation to it, and how strong it was on a scale from 0 (negligible) to 100 (extremely strong). There is often a dominant emotion, but it may be accompanied by others, too – for example, a dominant feeling of anger is often accompanied by fear and shame. Next, try to write down your thoughts at the time. What was going through your mind? Try to identify these as clearly as you can. Now, imagine you are a jury and you’re putting those thoughts on trial! Note down any evidence that supports the thought, and after that, any evidence that contradicts the thought. This might be difficult to do initially, but keep practising after each activating event, and it will get easier. Finally, use this evidence to write down a new thought or belief about the event. This doesn’t necessarily have to be positive – it’s about creating a more balanced, realistic evaluation of the situation or event. How do you feel after going through this process? Make a note of your emotions and rate their intensity. These may be the same emotions that you wrote down in the second column, or they may be completely new ones. There are no right or wrongs here; everything is valid provided you are being honest and authentic.

Thought diaries can be really powerful, helping to change your mood and behaviour, and to put challenging situations into perspective. But you do need to practice them. Completing them effectively (and remembering to do so after each activating event) is a skill to learn, just like any other. Try and complete a thought diary as near to the event happening as possible,. It’s a really helpful way to step back from the event, reduce its power, and see it in a different way.

Unhelpful thinking styles

Ready for more? Thought diaries in and of themselves are really effective, but there is another step you can take to help you better understand your thinking patterns. Over time, you may notice that there are particular thoughts that often arise. Have a look back through the third column once you’ve done a few entries and see if there are any similarities here. You may find that you are consistently using some unhelpful thinking styles. These are habitual automatic thoughts that tend to recur during and after difficult situations (they are also known as erroneous thinking patterns, or thinking traps – the terminology sometimes differs, but the meaning is the same). Have a look at the table below to see if any feel familiar to you. We often adopt more than one, so it’s perfectly normal if you identify with several of them. You can use this knowledge to help you further challenge those thoughts. Again, consistent practice is key, but it’s so worth it! Give it a go and notice the results!

Challenging automatic thoughts is often the first task in CBT sessions and for many clients this is sufficient to help them address difficulties with emotions and behaviour. However, automatic thoughts are the surface-level versions of deeper-seated core beliefs, which can be harder to modify. If you have tried the thought diary method and are still struggling to change your thinking patterns, get in touch, as you may benefit from coaching to help you work on core beliefs.

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