Thoughts – Emotions – Behaviors: A cheat sheet to making changes

People operate within some form of this basic interconnected cycle: we have a feeling/emotion, which triggers a thought/belief, which we act on (behavior). Or we take an action (behavior), like give someone a hug, which causes a feeling (warmth or safety or affection), which makes a thought pop into our heads (“I want to see this friend more often!” or “I’m so grateful for my mom!”), etc. You get the idea. 

This three-part cycle is the basis of pretty much everything we do. This means, if one of those parts becomes harmful, it can turn into what we all know of as a “vicious cycle.” The good news is that, if we change one of those parts for the better, we can turn it into a positive cycle. 

One way to try this out is to see which part appeals to you – if you’re impulsive, you might do best in changing the emotion part. For example, let’s say you want to fall asleep at an earlier time. Instead of staying up late, getting that endorphin hit from social media, you could get a book of hilarious short stories and go to bed and read for a bit. You get the emotion hit from the funny stories, and you avoid the sleep-defying screen. This can change your behavior; you start to fall asleep earlier. That changes your beliefs from “I can never get to sleep” to “wow, I’m getting more sleep now.” Blammo, life change achieved. 

If you’re action-oriented, you might have the same goal – going to sleep earlier – but create a little evening ritual. This attacks the cycle from a behavioral angle, giving you actions to follow at night that breaks your behavioral pattern of sitting in bed doomscrolling Twitter. When you follow your evening ritual (behaviors), you wind down and feel peaceful (feelings) and think, ok, now I’m ready to sleep (thoughts). Blammo, positive cycle achieved a different way (it’ll probably take a lot more than one night, of course – reforming habit cycles takes time).

The three-part cycle is useful because it is simple yet you can tailor it to your own unique psychology. This is a core tenet of a widespread counseling theory known as Cognitive-Behavioral Theory (CBT). 

If you want professional help with this or other life issues, come check us out at our clinics in Fuquay-Varina, Cary, and Apex, where we have therapists who practice CBT and many other therapeutic approaches!

CarrieAnn Lefsaker

Mental Health Student Intern