Do thoughts cause feelings and behaviours? A CBT view..

worriedmanWhen stress becomes a disorder, it causes a shift in thinking to a negative distorted bias.

When this happens, your distorted thinking is largely the cause of your feelings and behaviours – events and situations only influence them, no matter how challenging…

If our thinking defaults to a negative and distorted view, we are going to respond inappropriately to events with over upsettness and unhelpful behavioural choices.

This is the core theory of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. All of its methods and techniques developed over the past decades flow out of this simple premise.

So it follows that if we can learn the skill of identifying and changing unhealthy irrational thinking to healthy rational thinking, we will feel and behave in a way that’s more constructive, that fits with the evidence and facts, and that doesn’t cause us unhappiness or pain or anger or self-sabotage behaviours… We will respond appropriately to events.


Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of how our thoughts determine our emotional mood and subsequent behaviour – we’ll take exactly the same scenario, but put two different thinking types in as the star…


Example of unhealthy thinking and consequential behaviour:

Event: Your colleague snaps at you when you say good morning.

dreamstime_9137020Thought: You think “Oh God, Tom really doesn’t like me, and he certainly doesn’t respect me. I feel humiliated. I’m embarrassed. What did I do to make him treat me this way? It must have been that thing last week. Or maybe that other thing last month. Does everyone in the office feel this way about me? Of course they do! Nobody really likes me. I’m a [insert whatever negative you attach to yourself generally].”.

Feeling: You experience emotions that reflect this thinking – eg shame, embarrassment, stress, anxiety, hurt… take your pick. And your body reacts by jumping into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Behaviour: Your irrational unhealthy knee-jerk thinking and resultant feelings cause self-defeating / self-limiting behaviour – all that day and night, and most likely into the next day and perhaps the next, and the next. Examples:

  • Avoidant Behaviour – where you withdraw and stay away from people and interactions, and feel tongue tied so become quiet, and can’t focus so procrastinate in order to endlessly ‘worry’ and ‘awfulise’ this ‘horrible’ thing that’s happened, so you can re-run it as a movie in your head, perhaps changing the script (‘I should have said blahblah, and then he’d say blahblah) and so on.
  • Or, if you have ‘demand’ thinking, you may react aggressively and set out to punish Tom for his behaviour, and carry a disturbing anger and resentment around with you – upsetting yourself and others in a way that is out of proportion to the event (“you must not treat me that way, you should behave appropriately and with respect, now you deserve my wrath – actually everybody does, because the world is ‘awful’ and ‘it’s not fair”.)





Alternative healthy example:

Event: Your colleague snaps at you when you say good morning.

dreamstime_9137149Thought: You think ‘Gosh, Tom is in a horrible mood! What’s up with that? What’s wrong with him? Maybe he’s feeling a bit low…’.

Feeling: You experience emotions that reflect this thinking – eg confusion, disappointment, concern, curiousity… but you don’t assume you ‘know’ why he did what he did, or that it means you’re a bad person or a loser, or that it has anything in particular to do with your value at all – you even wonder if you may have misinterpreted it.

Behaviour: Your rational balanced thinking and resultant feelings cause you to react in positive ‘healthy’ ways. Examples:

  • You immediately tell Tom you feel he just snapped at you – maybe using humour – you ask if you’ve upset him in any way, or if he’s just ‘in the horrors’ – you ask if he’s OK. You attempt to cheer him up.
  • Alternatively you say nothing and ‘let it go’ and don’t let it affect your self-esteem – you don’t carry it around with you or use it as a stick to hit yourself with all day. You don’t feel Toms behaviour or attitude defines who you are and your value. And you don’t feel it defines who he is or his value – ergo you don’t feel the need to badmouth him to everybody else and obsess and plot to punish him for his behaviour.



Do you see how the same event can cause different feelings and behaviour depending on your ‘perception’ of the event and of yourself? If your core belief is that you are a worthless/inferior person, you’ll be more prone to the first scenario – whereas if you have a healthy acceptance of yourself (and others), and a belief that you’re a worthy individual, the second scenario is more likely.

Can you think of alternative scenarios? & reasons for Tom’s behaviour that are not all about you (personalisation)? Is it useful to  assume/mind read/or fortune tell? And, remember, even if somebody does have an unfavourable view of us (this will happen through our lives, not everybody will like and respect us), we don’t have to agree with them!  (See ‘common thinking errors‘ for a description of typical negative thinking styles.)

We can make it so that the second healthy thinking scenario is natural for us – with CBT!


Task: review the following basic CBT exercise to test the premise on yourself – go on, it’ll just take a few minutes…

First: think of an occasion when you were very emotionally upset, when you were not happy with the way you felt or acted… then ask yourself the following questions :

•  What thoughts were you thinking? (exact ‘statement’ thoughts not vague descriptions)
•  What emotions were you feeling (eg stressed, anxious, jealous, angry etc. You can have several)
•  What was your body doing? (were there any physiological reactions to your emotions – butterflies, shaking etc?)
•  What did you do? (what was your behaviour, how did you act? in a way that made the situation better or worse?)

Second: think of an occasion when you were delighted with yourself – when you were thinking positively and behaved in a way that made you proud to be you… and then apply the above list of questions to that situation!


See the difference? Can you make useful observations? Do you agree that your thinking and perception and attitude causes your feelings and behaviour? You do? Great – CBT should work well for you then. Enjoy the journey!

One thought on “Do thoughts cause feelings and behaviours? A CBT view..

  1. Pingback: Using E.T.F.B model with agile techniques – How to make a continues desirable behavior change? - Who's the boss of me?

Post a comment here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.