Is the thoughts, feelings and actions triangle helpful?

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In this blog, we will answer the question “Is the thoughts, feelings and actions triangle helpful?”. We will define what a thought, feelings and actions triangle is and the benefits it has in one’s life. We will also explore the three parts individually and determine how they are related to each other.

We will then discuss the thoughts, feelings and actions cycle and how it helps to combat anxiety and depression. Finally, we will discuss how we can use the triangle in emotional regulation and in helping children understand why they behave how they do.

Is the thoughts, feelings and actions triangle helpful? 

Yes, the thoughts, feelings and actions triangle is very helpful. Cognitive behavioural therapists use the thoughts, feelings and actions triangle (also known as the cognitive triangle) to show their clients how thoughts, feelings and actions can influence what is happening to them and around them. As we will discuss later on, this triangle is very helpful in treating depression and anxiety.

The cognitive triangle is a diagram that shows the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It shows how our thoughts affect our feelings, which ‌dictate how we behave, which affect our thoughts, and so on. The cycle is continuous and can only be broken through intervention.

The primary aim of cognitive behavioural therapists is to educate clients on the connection between the three aspects and how they can change our perception, thinking, and behaviours. This triangle is very effective when supporting people with mental disorders, especially anxiety and depression.

Let us now focus on each side of the triangle separately.

Thoughts

These are ideas and opinions that are produced by thinking. We experience fleeting thoughts every day but some ‌stay longer than others. Negative thoughts like self-criticism ‌linger more in our minds than positive ones. 

These recurring thoughts have a direct impact on our feelings. For example, Rose, a teenager who is always in the top five in all her exams, has recurring thoughts about how she is a failure after becoming a position ten out of thirty students in her last exam.

Recurrent thoughts arise from;

All or nothing thinking: it is also called black and white thinking, where one sees things as they are or are not. In the example given, Rose either sees herself as successful or as a failure.

Overgeneralization: this is where one takes one negative event as an invariable rule. For example, Rose, seeing herself as a failure, believes that she will fail in all other exams.

Mental filter: with this, a person only focuses on the negative aspects of a situation and fixates on it until it affects how you view the situation. In Rose’s case, instead of seeing the twenty students she has defeated, she focuses on the nine that are ahead of her and this causes distress.

Disqualifying the positive: this means leaving out the positive incidents that have happened before and focusing on the one that has gone wrong. For example, instead of Rose appreciating and focusing on all the times she has ever topped her class, she lets ‌one time she failed to make her feel like a failure.

Fortune telling: you predict that things will go wrong and you strongly believe that your prediction is correct i.e., Rose predicting that she will fail the upcoming exam.

Jumping into conclusions: making assumptions based on your negative thinking, i.e., Rose believing that she is a failure after dropping to position 10 in one exam.

Mind reading: you make assumptions that make you interpret people’s situations wrongly, i.e., when Rose sees her classmates laughing, she believes that they are laughing at her for failing

Magnification or minimization: you exaggerate the insignificant event and lessen the significant event. Rose magnifies her failing once in the exam and minimizes her being able to defeat 20 students.

Labelling and mislabeling: emotions make you exaggerate situations/ events than they actually are, i.e., Rose classifies herself as the failure of the class.

Emotional reasoning: assuming that your negative emotions show things the way they are, i.e., Rose feeling like she might fail in the coming exam makes her believe ‌she will actually fail.

Personalization: this is seeing yourself as responsible for anything bad that happens around you. For example, Rose believes ‌the class’ mean score has dropped solely because of her.

Feelings

They are generated from the persistent rumination of negative thoughts example, in the case of Rose, she feels like she has failed herself, her teachers and everyone else because of her performance. She is experiencing feelings of failure. These emotions affect how one behaves.

Actions

These are influenced by our thoughts and feelings. In the case of Rose, the resulting actions from her thoughts and feelings could be isolation, crying or suicide tendencies.

How is the thoughts, feelings and actions triangle related to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)?

CBT is a psychosocial intervention that helps identify and resolve underlying thought patterns and feelings that affect our behaviours. It is mainly used in treating depression and anxiety.

The cognitive triangle helps the client to list down the thoughts, feelings and actions in their lives. This will give them insight into patterns that trigger feelings of depression and anxiety. Uncovering underlying emotions will change a person’s thoughts and behaviours. 

 5 ways the thoughts, feelings and actions triangle is helpful

Increases self-awareness

A cognitive triangle is a crucial tool in helping people identify the self-defeating thoughts that are the root causes of depression and anxiety. Many people make the mistake of focusing on changing their actions without identifying the root causes, hence the illness becomes an endless cycle. Self-awareness of the root cause is the first step to treatment.

Help in changing core beliefs

Core beliefs are the central ideas of a person about themselves, others, and the world in general. Changing core beliefs is not easy and might take months for one to change, but with some effort, it is very possible. It is important to change negative core beliefs, i.e., believing that you are a failure or a burden to others to develop self-worth and increase self-esteem.

Help in problem-solving

The cognitive triangle allows one to identify the negative thought patterns and work towards challenging and modifying them into positive acceptable behaviour. Problem-solving increases one’s ability to cope with negative life stressors.

Reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety

Persistent negative thoughts and emotions lead to negative outcomes. This cycle of negativity brings about anxiety and depression because the expectations we have about the future are also negative. The triangle gives you a sense of control over your thoughts and emotions and instead of seeing challenges as burdens; you see them as just setbacks that you can resolve.

Predict human behaviour

A persistent cycle of negative thoughts, feelings and actions have a very high likelihood of producing negative results in the future. Acknowledging our shortcomings, changing our core beliefs and having problem-solving skills are a guarantee of one being able to handle stressful situations in the future. The cognitive triangle prepares you for the life stressors that happen in day-to-day life.

How does the cognitive triangle help in combating depression and anxiety?

We have all had feelings of anxiety and depression at least once in our lifetime. These two mental illnesses are mostly caused by the rumination of negative thoughts that cause psychological distress. These thoughts are then interpreted as negative feelings, and the consequences are negative actions.

Depression

The cognitive triangle helps in challenging and rationalizing negative thought patterns. Once you realize the thought patterns, you can look for the emotional triggers behind them versus the actual reality of the event. The therapist can help you reduce the cognitive distortions, i.e., mind-reading, which is very common for people with depression and help in building a more positive pattern of thinking and perceptions.

Anxiety

The CBT triangle will help you identify the negative thoughts that are making you anxious all the time. Make a list of all those thoughts feeding you anxiety and the negative behaviours that come with them. The negative thoughts and feelings cause avoidant behaviours.

With the help of the CBT triangle, you are able to challenge the “what ifs” with more positive and helpful thoughts that promote your wellbeing. Methods used in treating anxiety through the CBT triangle include; thought stopping, problem-solving, exposure tasks, reframing thoughts, and challenging thoughts.

Importance of autonomy in therapy when using the CBT triangle

Autonomy means allowing your client to make decisions and change behaviour patterns of their own volition. Once you provide the client with positive therapeutic conditions and positive aspects of human nature, they can grow positively. Coercing or imposing your ideas on the client does not work, as the client has the power to make a decision.

When you allow clients to be mindful and aware of what is happening in their lives by themselves, help them examine their inner lives, become autonomous and make life-changing decisions that will help them handle stressful situations better.

Conclusion

In this blog, we have defined the cognitive triangle and explored the three parts that affect our behaviours, as well as the major negative thought patterns that dictate our feelings and behaviours.

We have also noted the importance of using the thoughts, feelings and actions triangle, as well as how to use it in therapy to treat and manage depression and anxiety.  If you have any questions or comments about this article, feel free to write them in the section below.

Frequently asked questions: thoughts, feelings and actions triangle

What is the cognitive triangle?

It is a diagram that shows the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This means that you can influence or change one aspect and it will change the other.

How are thoughts, feelings, and actions related?

The way we think about ourselves, others, or the world determines how we feel about those people or ourselves. Our feelings, therefore, determine our actions and behaviours.

Can we control our thoughts, feelings and behaviours?

Yes, we can control our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Once we can do this, we can achieve our goals and have successful lives. Managing these three aspects determines how we react to things that are happening around us.

Do thoughts lead to actions?

Thoughts are the beginning of all our actions. Thoughts determine the course of life that you take.

How do you stop negative thoughts from manifesting?

Avoid negative people, stop over-analyzing situations, try meditation, take care of yourself, forgive and find what works for you.

Citations

Shafir H. CBT for anxiety: how it works & examples. Retrieved from https://www.choosingtherapy.com/cbt-for-anxiety/

Stutton J.,(2021, December 24). How to foster client’s autonomy in counseling therapy. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/autonomy-counseling/

KASA team, what is the cognitive triangle and how is it used? Retrieved from https://kasa-solutions.com/what-is-the-cognitive-triangle-and-how-is-it-used/#:~:text=Cognitive%20behavioral%20therapists%20use%20the,issues%20like%20anxiety%20or%20depression.

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