Controlling our Actions by Understanding Emotions-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Controlling our Actions by Understanding Emotions

Controlling our Actions by Understanding Emotions-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
It’s hard to imagine that as unique as we are individually, we all experience the same primary human emotions; it is something that connects us all together as human beings.  While some individuals hide or do not express emotions, others are comfortable sharing or expressing emotions regularly.  In different frequency or intensity, we experience thousands of conscious and unconscious emotions every day.  Further driving our emotions is an estimated 50,000 thoughts a day.  Imagine the number of emotions we experience in just an hour: joy, anger, sadness, disappointment, excitement, and so on.
Emotions are neither good nor bad-they are simply the feelings we connect to thoughts or experiences.  It is what we do or how we react to an emotion that can be labeled as a positive or negative response. It is healthy to understand and acknowledge our emotions.  Generally when we share how we feel in a respectful manner, others can accept our feelings: they might even empathize or offer support.  However, when we let emotions take control of our thoughts and actions, our relationships can suffer and we may be faced with undesirable results. 

Example: Thoughts>Emotions>Behavior
A good example of the thought/emotion/action circle is when trying to manage a difficult emotion such as jealousy.

Jane sees Jeff-her boyfriend of six months talking to an attractive woman at his work party.  She feels jealous.  Jane has been feeling insecure for some time.  He has been working long hours and is less talkative.  Fueled by intense emotions, Jane decides to confront him, alleging that he is having an affair with this woman.  She does it right then and there.  After angrily and loudly making her accusations in front of a small group of his colleagues, she storms off calling the woman a name on her way out.  She waits outside for Jeff to come after her, but he doesn’t.  In fact, he doesn’t return any calls over the next week.  Eventually they talk and he breaks off the relationship.  The woman at the party was his supervisor.  They were discussing an important project. His supervisor also has a girlfriend.  He states that he cannot date someone with such emotional outbursts or a jealous, volatile nature.  Jeff expresses feeling embarrassed in front of colleagues and states that he is sorry, but it is just not going to work out.  

While it is easy for the reader to identify what went wrong for Jane, when we are experiencing strong emotions, it is often difficult to know what to do or how not to react.  There are a series of things that Jane could have done better.  First, communicating with Jeff about her feelings of insecurity, the long hours and feeling distant would have been a healthy approach.  Second, while having intense feelings of jealousy triggered by seeing your boyfriend talking to an attractive person is common, the best course of action would be to acknowledge your feelings quietly to yourself.  Waiting for an appropriate time and setting to share these natural emotions is recommended.  In a moment of anger, mind-reading, or assuming the worst (cognitive distortions), Jane boldly makes a scene-- her emotions are controlling her actions.  Had she taken the time to ask Jeff later in a non-accusatory manner, they might still be in a relationship. Jane acted on her emotions quickly, aggressively and inappropriately: leading to the outcome (fear of losing Jeff) that fueled her original emotion.  

Many of us can relate to a moment when we reacted in a fit of passion or anger and the outcome was what we didn’t want to happen or feared. Think of a time when you acted impulsively on an emotion.  What was the initial emotion?  What thoughts or beliefs led to this emotion?  In hindsight, were those thoughts accurate or faulty in some way?  What action if any might have resulted in a better result?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
The Thought>Emotion>Behavior Wheel is at the core in understanding cognitive behavioral therapy.  Thoughts lead to feelings which lead to behaviors.  A poor choice in action can lead us back to the original negative thought and feeling, and often we behave poorly again. 
The negative thoughts that lead us to unpleasant emotions are often the result of Cognitive Distortions--faulty thought patterns.  (Read more about cognitive distortions July blog 2015.)

Taking Charge of our Emotions
Becoming aware of our emotions and the thoughts connected to them is not an easy task.  We must acknowledge an emotion in the present moment, and investigate the thought triggering that emotion.  For many, this process takes time, effort and a desire for change.

When faced with an emotional moment, try to identify the emotion and write it out. What are the thoughts feeding this emotion?
Is it possible that the thought is a Cognitive Distortion?  If so which one? 
Do a quick fact check (i.e. Jeff has never cheated before and I have no reason to distrust him). 
Does the opposite thought or fact check result in a different emotion, like reassurance or feeling grateful?  (i.e. Jeff has been a loyal boyfriend.)

When we take the time to acknowledge our emotions without judgment and assess what is triggering them, we often find that our unconscious thought patterns are faulty.  Other times, we might identify areas in our lives in need of change.  We may have insecurities, or fears we are not dealing with. Knowing what triggers our fears and emotions gives us more control over our thoughts, behaviors and the outcomes.  Self-awareness, in addition to shifting our thoughts and choosing different responses can reduce negative cycles of emotions and behaviors.  Better choices are made when we shift our thoughts to more accurate, positive beliefs.  Focusing on positive thoughts can increase our self-esteem, enhance our relationships and improve the quality of our daily lives.
Learn more about your thoughts through journaling or exercises in either cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy.  

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