Cognitive triangle: How are thoughts, feelings, and actions connected?

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This blog post will cover topics like what is the cognitive triangle, how thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected, CBT & cognitive triangle, and how it is used to treat anxiety, depression, and other mental health-related issues, frequently asked questions, references for further reading and information. 

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Cognitive triangle: How are thoughts, feelings, and actions connected?

Let us consider the following example. Imagine you have a maths test tomorrow and you think “I am going to fail”. This thought takes control over your mind and you start to worry. 

You are so worried that even walking up to the examination room seems a difficult task for you. So you decide to skip the test and pretend to be sick in order to escape this dreadful situation.

The thought ( I am going to fail) led to a feeling (worry) which in turn led to an action ( skipping the test and pretending to be sick). This shows us that there is definitely a connection between our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

 Let us try to understand this connection better

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Triangle

In the 1960s, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis gave the concept of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is one of the most widely used therapy today. It is used for treating disorders like anxiety and depression. The basic idea behind it is that change in attitude leads to change in actions.

As the name suggests, CBT is a combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy. Cognitive therapy suggests that our thoughts about people and things affect the way we act towards them. Behavioral therapy demonstrates that consequences have an impact on behavior.

One of the most important components of CBT is the cognitive triangle which shows the relation between our thoughts, feelings, and actions. 

What is the Cognitive Triangle?

The cognitive triangle shows the continuous cycle between our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It describes how our thoughts influence how we feel, which influences our actions, which again influences our thoughts, and so on. The only way to break this cycle is through intervention.

What are the three sides of the triangle?

  1. Thoughts

We think about thousands of things a day. Some of these are fleeting thoughts like “I liked that girl’s outfit.” while some can be obsessive and recurring thoughts like “ no one will ever love me”. Therapy helps us to identify how thee thoughts affect our emotions.

There are various sources of recurrent thoughts:

●  Overgeneralization- You take one negative example and then start to base all your assumptions on it. For eg- your neighbour’s kid was hurt while playing cricket, so you feel your kid will also definitely get hurt if he/she plays cricket.

●  Ignoring the positive- If your child hasn’t gotten hurt nine out of ten times he played outside, you are still likely to focus on the one time he did get hurt. You will disqualify all the positive incidences and will only focus on the negatives.

●  Making assumptions- You make assumptions about other people’s situations and then jump to the worse possible conclusions. If your child is late coming back home, you’ll think that they have been kidnapped.

●  The binocular trick- You will maximize the importance of some thoughts and minimize the importance of others. For eg- you think that to keep your child safe you need to be overprotective (maximization of thought) and reduce the importance of children being independent ( minimization of thought).

●  Personalization-You are likely to blame yourself for the bad things happening around you. For instance, if your child gets hurt you will blame yourself food not being a good parent.

  1. Feelings

The only thing that differentiates human wings from robots is their ability to feel. Your thoughts help you to feel different emotions. Feelings can be expressed through words. For example, if you have thought that “ I need to ensure the safety of my children”. The feeling is associated with this thought is fear. These emotions then affect the way we behave.

  1. Actions

Thoughts and feelings manifest themselves in the form of actions. If we consider the above-mentioned example then our feeling of fear will lead us to behave in an overprotective manner. We will not allow our children to play outside or will continuously keep a watch on them. 

How can the cognitive triangle be used in Cognitive Behavioural therapy?

Cognitive-behavioral therapists use the cognitive triangle to show their clients how their thoughts, feelings, and actions are interconnected. Let’s take a look at this example:

Luna is a high school student. She aspires to become an actor. She wants to be a part of her school’s dramatics society but has been rejected twice in the previous year. Although the teacher encouraged her to keep trying, she was filled with self-doubts.

She was disappointed at the rejections and told herself that she must not be good enough to become an actor. While she still wants to be a part of the dramatics society, she is starting to lose her self-confidence and starts to skip the upcoming auditions. 

She tells herself that she’ll never be a successful actor. This cycle continues until one day she decides to visit a therapist.

The therapist asks Luna to break down her experience according to the sides of the cognitive triangle. In this case, the CBT triangle will look like this:

●  Thought- I will never be a successful actor

●  Feeling- self-doubt, reduced self-confidence

●  Action- skipping auditions

Listing the negative thoughts will help Luna to recognize her triggers and patterns so that she can avoid them in the future. Feelings may appear to be simple to recognize and name, yet they are frequently accompanied by underlying emotions. 

For eg- feeling frustrated over not being selected has an underlying feeling of being hurt and facing self-doubts. This will result in a completely different reaction, and identifying the underlying emotion is crucial in dealing with mental health problems. 

When your patients are able to identify and change underlying emotions and thoughts, their actions will follow suit. As a therapist, you can also advise your patients on behavioral adjustments to help them control their thoughts and feelings.

After the therapy, the cognitive triangle will look like this:

●  New thought- The teacher encouraged me to try again because he sees potential in me

●  New feeling- excited, confident

●  New behaviour- doing more effort and preparation. Taking part in auditions.

The cognitive triangle is a great way to structure your approach to cognitive behavioural therapy with clients.

 

Combining the thoughts, feelings, and actions in psychotherapy

  1. Validating emotions

There are instances when we tell ourselves that our feelings are stupid and childish. This leads to the formation of meta-emotions, that is, negative feelings about our feelings. The best way to change an emotion is to accept it. Have you ever felt a clutter in your stomach when you feel hurt?. This is your body’s way to tell you about your feelings. You can improve your relationship with your feelings by learning to accept and validate them.

  1. Challenging thoughts

Some examples of negative thoughts include-

●  I am not good at anything

●  Everything in my life is wrong

●  People are against me

●  Others are better than me

In CBT therapy, we examine each of these thoughts one by one and begin to question them. It becomes more natural as time goes on. The brain is simply reprogrammed to think in a different way. It’s very amazing.

  1. Trying new behaviours

The endpoint of the triangle is behaviour. Changing behaviour can interrupt the negative cycle. If we consider the example above, Luna may become a part of her dramatics society. 

This will give her a more optimistic outlook. Even if she doesn’t, she would at least be happy that she tried and gave her best. 

She can ask the teacher for specific remarks and things she should improve. Or, maybe she realizes that acting is not her calling. In all these cases, changing her behavior helped Luna to get out of the negative cycle she was caught in.

 

Use of thoughts, feelings, and actions triangular interconnection in other psychotherapies

Gradual exposure

When treating anxiety or PTSD, we use a technique called gradual exposure. This entails taking baby steps to test the body’s reaction to harmless triggers. 

For example, Eric faced a terrible car accident in which he was severely injured. Since then, he started avoiding driving because he was very afraid. After a while, he gets tired of being dependent on his friends to drive him around. 

So, he resolves to reintroduce himself to driving, despite his fears. Eric gains confidence and his driving returns to normal over time (perhaps just a few weeks). By confronting his fear, he broke the loop at the behaviour point.

Behavioural activation

When dealing with clients facing anxiety or PTSD, we tend to start at the thought point of the cognitive triangle. When dealing with depression, we start from the action point. 

Negative thought processes seem to go into overdrive when people are depressed. It becomes especially difficult to adjust the thoughts when one is depressed. 

Instead, we can begin with a technique known as “behavioural activation.” You can start by changing little behaviours like going to the gym. Just the act of doing something different can help you challenge your negative thoughts. 

Changing activities and settings can have a variety of physiological consequences, which are linked to our thoughts and emotions.

Conclusion

This blog answered the question, “Cognitive triangle: how are thoughts, actions, and feelings connected?” and also covered concepts about the cognitive triangle, the connection between thoughts, actions, and feelings, use of the cognitive triangle in CBT, and other psychotherapies. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Cognitive triangle: How are thoughts, feelings, and actions connected?

What are the three parts of the cognitive triangle?

Thoughts, feelings, and actions are the three parts of the cognitive triangle. All these components are interconnected.

How thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected?

Simply put, a situation emerges, and we have thoughts about the facts of the circumstance; those thoughts drive our feelings, and those feelings lead to behaviours or actions that impact the situation (either favorably or adversely), and so on.

What is the difference between thoughts feelings and actions?

The things you do or the way you act are referred to as actions. How you act is heavily influenced by your thoughts and feelings. When you’re happy, you’re more likely to do wonderful things. Your thoughts are educated guesses as to why something happened or what might happen.

How do you replace negative thoughts?

Some of the ways through which you can replace negative thoughts include-

  1. Acknowledge the thought you want to change
  2. Journal down your thoughts
  3. Find things you love and enjoy
  4. Be real with yourself and ask yourself some tough questions
  5. Give positive affirmations to yourself

Do thoughts create feelings or do feelings create thoughts?

Many institutions teach that your thoughts produce your feelings in the world of personal growth. You may modify your feelings by changing your thinking. You have complete freedom to feel whatever you desire.

Do thoughts create reality?

You’re living in a world of thought because the thoughts you pay attention to produce emotions and physical reactions in your body: You experience what you think because your thoughts generate your experiences.

References

Lanette (2021) How the CBT triangle connects thoughts, feelings, and behaviors https://www.thecounselingpalette.com/post/the-famous-cbt-triangle-with-examples-and-worksheets

What is the Cognitive Triangle and how it is used? https://kasa-solutions.com/what-is-the-cognitive-triangle-and-how-is-it-used/

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