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Understanding thoughts, feelings and behaviours

Much of psychology is concerned with what are often called the ABCs: affect (feelings or emotions), behaviour (actions), and cognition (thoughts). Each factor influences the others, but we are not always aware of this or of how it can affect our mood. In this blog, I explain the relationship between thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and behaviours, and how some simple changes can make a big difference.

The relationship between thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and behaviour

One of the fundamental principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is that feelings are not caused by an event or situation in and of itself, but by our interpretations of that event or situation. These thoughts and interpretations can then influence how we feel, our bodily sensations or physical symptoms, and in turn how we behave. It doesn’t have to start with thoughts, though: it might start with a bodily sensation or a feeling, which then influences our thoughts and behaviours. Each component is interlinked.

Considering this interrelationship can be useful if you are suffering from any kind of psychological difficulty, such as low mood, anxiety, or stress. It can help you better understand exactly how a situation is affecting you, and can help you to decide how to tackle it by focusing on your thoughts, bodily sensations, or behaviour. The good news is that making changes in one of these areas is likely to have positive knock-on effects on the other areas, which will consequently improve your mood.

Let’s think of an example. Imagine you are suffering from chronic work stress. You are working long hours and struggling to cope with an increasingly demanding workload. Over time you have found it more difficult to balance the demands of work with the commitments of your home life. This is how the stress might present itself:

When we experience stress we may feel irritable, anxious and overwhelmed about the amount of work we need to do, or the number of commitments we have to contend with. We can find ourselves thinking very negatively about our situation: we may tell ourselves that it’s too much; we cannot cope; why does this always happen? Stress can also result in several bod