How to better understand your emotions through your thoughts.
Clients often come to me with the thought, “why I am feeling (insert emotion or physical sensation here)?” Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches us that feelings largely make sense when we understand the thought process behind them. Just because our feelings are valid and very real, does not mean the thoughts that led to our current emotional state are true, accurate, or helpful (Beck, 2020).
Using the principles of CBT and through a consistent cognitive practice, we can improve our emotional response to situations, our overall mood, and our quality of life. The first step in this process is becoming aware of our automatic thoughts.
Automatic thoughts are short, quick phrases, sentences, or images that pop into our minds (Beck, 2020). They occur constantly in response to internal and external situations. For example, an internal situation may be that I have a stomachache and my associated automatic thought might be: “that food did not agree with me”. An external example might be that a friend is late for our lunch date and my automatic thought may be: “she must be stuck in traffic.”
It is through these automatic thoughts that we can see how our brains perceive the situations around us (Beck, 2020). For instance, if I was previously worried that my friend was angry with me, my thought might be she’s late because “she doesn’t want to see me.” Both automatic thoughts have the potential to be true, but each has a very different impact on our emotional response. The automatic thought “she must be stuck in traffic” will most likely produce a neutral emotion or maybe one of slight frustration; where the “she doesn’t want to see me” automatic thought is more likely to cause anxiety, sadness, or another distressing emotion.
Being aware of our automatic thoughts is extremely helpful in understanding our emotional experience. Becoming aware of our automatic thoughts is an empowering tool because it takes the power away from the situations that we often say “make us feel” some type of way and bring that power back to our own perception of these situations, which leave the door wide open to change.
Developing a Cognitive Practice
I mentioned earlier that this is a practice and being aware of our automatic thoughts does take practice. I recommend jotting down your automatic thoughts and the associated situations in a notes page on your phone, in a journal or a thought record (under the guidance of a cognitive behavioral therapist). This could be done throughout the day as your thoughts occur or maybe you set reminders on your phone to check-in with your thoughts 2-5 times a day, whatever is an achievable interval for your schedule.
Identifying our automatic thoughts can provide insight and help us gain a better understanding of why we feel the way we do. Once we identify our automatic thoughts then we can begin to challenge and modify them through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In therapy we can also leave space to honor our emotions, develop adaptive coping skills, and work towards specific goals.
If you’re interested in learning more about how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you improve your mental health and mental performance. Click the link here to schedule a free 15-minute conversation.
Meghan Morley, LPC
Owner & Licensed Professional Counselor
Cognitive Pursuits LLC
Citation: BECK, JUDITH S. (2020). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond third edition. GUILFORD PRESS, THE.