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 bodily sensations or physical symptoms, such as increased headaches, heartburn and muscle tension. Other behavioural symptoms may include snapping at our loved ones and withdrawing from social activity because we simply don’t have the time, or don’t feel capable of engaging in conversation. The combination of increased muscle tension, rumination over stressors, and potential guilt over our behaviour, can then make it difficult for us to sleep well, which of course makes us feel more stressed in the morning.
So, what can we do about it?
If you are experiencing stress, low mood, anxiety, or any other psychological difficulty, have a go at completing your own version of this diagram, which you can find here.
Once you have identified the specific thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations or symptoms, and behaviour associated with a particular event or situation, you can start to work out how best to improve your mood. There are essentially 3 ways you can do this:
1. Increase activity
Increasing activity is a key tenet of CBT because often, when we are experiencing some kind of difficulty, it can feel natural to withdraw from social activities, hobbies, and chores. Perhaps we don’t feel like it, aren’t in the mood, or don’t feel that we can face people or the housework. Withdrawing from these activities can help us to feel safe. But although reducing activity might feel like the best thing to do in the moment, it’s actually likely to make us feel worse. Getting out and about, doing a variety of things, and interacting with others, is the easiest way of changing your mood and getting some perspective. For example, scheduling regular activity is often a major action when managing depression, because it helps to provide routine, social interaction, and engagement. So if you do anything, start with this. It doesn’t have to be huge – you can start slowly with a range of activities from housework to hobbies to meeting a friend for a coffee. Make plans for each and every week, and see how it makes you feel.
2. Address bodily sensations
You might prefer to start by managing physical symptoms. This strategy is again fairly straightforward and can be guided by the symptoms themselves. So, if you are feeling fatigued and lethargic, you could look at slowly increasing the amount of exercise you are doing, and explore ways of improving your sleep hygiene. If you are experiencing muscle tension, you could try stretching techniques or massage. Once you have identified some ideas for addressing bodily sensations, practice them regularly, and you will start to notice a difference.
3. Investigate your thoughts
The final technique is perhaps the most difficult one but if you find yourself dealing with a lot of self-criticism or negative thoughts, you might want to start here. We all have an internal dialogue with ourselves, which can come in the form of explicit self-statements (e.g., “You’re such an idiot! Why would you do that?”), and in the form of a subconscious running commentary. Often we allow these thoughts to continue unchecked without really evaluating them, and as such we find ourselves believing them. But remember: our thoughts are not facts. They are interpretations or evaluations of a particular situation or event, and are not necessarily balanced, fair or objective. What we want to start doing is taking more control over our thoughts by paying attention to them, investigating whether they are accurate, and changing them if necessary. One way of doing this is to complete a thought diary every time you notice a negative thought occurring.
The strategies in action
Let’s look at how this could work with the stress example. With stress, it can be very helpful to start working on bodily sensations, so you could learn some breathing techniques or try a practicing short yoga sequence every day. Then you might consider making some behavioural changes – say “yes” to social invitations and allow yourself to relax, have fun, and forget about your workload for a while; practice your deep breathing when you are feeling irritable around loved ones so that you can stay calmer during those interactions. After working on bodily sensations and behavioural symptoms, you might feel ready to work on your thoughts, and start completing a thought diary every time you get really wound up. Using these strategies consistently will have a positive impact on your ability to deal with stress, and on your mood in general.
A final tip
The ideas and strategies in this blog are not particularly complicated – so if you’re feeling inspired to complete your own diagram and start addressing some of the areas, that’s great! But just choose one area – thoughts, behaviour or bodily sensations – to work on at a time, then move on to the next. If you try to work on all 3 areas at once, you may find yourself getting overwhelmed or put unnecessary pressure on yourself to get results. Remember that change takes time; it’s a marathon rather than a sprint. These skills and strategies can be applied throughout your life in a variety of situations, so it’s worth taking your time and playing the long game.