The thoughts, emotions, and behaviors triangle

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The Diagram below can be used to understand the interconnectedness of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Additionally the diagram gives an easy to understand explanation of the many different means of offering a psychotherapy intervention. I use this Diagram to offer a visual depiction of all the different options which are available to help the client in achieving a desired change. I use this diagram to unify all theories… personally I am an eclectic therapist… I believe in all the various interventions and I would propose that perhaps being open to offering any of a diverse array of interventions is a sure way of increasing your ability to assist a diverse array of people (multi-cultural competence).

Changing behaviors – With this point of intervention you can help a person to engage in behaviors which with have a positive effect on their emotional state and thought processes.

How you change behaviors – Associations and Rewards are the two main interventions. With rewards you reward desired behaviors while mostly ignoring negative behaviors. With associations you train people to associate positive behaviors with things they believe to be positive… for example, in beer commercials they put attractive people in bathing suits in their adds to encourage you to associate their product with attractive half naked people… if successful, you will feel the same positive feelings looking at their product as you do when you think of half-naked attractive people… this encourages you to engage in the behavior of getting that product.

  • Example for thoughts – If you encourage a client to engage in behaviors which they are very likely to succeed at they will be internally rewarded by their success. This success can then encourage them to think “I can be successful” instead of “my goal is hopeless.”
  • Example for thoughts – engage is meditation. Engaging in mediation reduces unwanted thoughts and your emotional attachment to the content of your thoughts. Meditation is a behavior which has dramatic positive effects on your stress and therefor on your physical health. Medication has been shown to increase your ability to experience positive emotions… this behaviors increases you maximum happiness potential.
  • Example for emotions (biological) – If you are able to encourage someone to engage in exercise and proper nutrition you will be able to help them to improve their felt happiness. Some studies have found exercise to be as effective as anti-depressants in treating depression. Increasing the behavior of exercise therefor is a way of intervening to improve emotions.
  • Example for emotions (pharmacological) – You can also encourage someone to engage in the behavior of taking an anti-depressant… this behavior will improve their affect.
  • Example of emotions and thoughts (relational) – Helping a couple or a family to successfully communicate and interact with each other will increase the feelings of security and attachment in the relevant individuals. Healthy attachments (which are relationships in which people are safe and supported when they are authentically emotionally vulnerable and available) are necessary for emotional wellness. Therefor changing the interaction behaviors between people helps their emotions. Incidentally it will also change the stories that the people tell themselves and others about their relationships… this changes the way they think about their relationships… positive thoughts produce positive emotions.

Changing Thoughts – there is a famous quote that many people have taken credit for (Thereau is where I got it) – “I have suffered much in my life… and most of it never happened.” We create our own suffering by ruminating on negative thoughts. The “what if” or the “I should have” thoughts are perhaps the most damaging. If you can interrupt these useless and often irrational thoughts you will not have to feel the negative emotions associated with those thoughts.

How to change thoughts – there are four main ways to change thoughts: reflection, disputing irrational thoughts, being mindful or focusing your attention on the present moment, and intentionally thinking about positive thoughts or new ways of narrating your lived experience.

  • Example of disputing irrational beliefs – If you think “I will never be able to do this task” you will feel hopeless and despondent and will be unlikely to engage in the behaviors necessary to complete the task. Never is ironically almost never true… If you dispute this negative cognition and replace it with a new one such as “I can complete these steps which will lead me towards being able to complete the task.” You will feel more hopeful and will be more likely to engage in the desired behaviors.
  • Example of reflections – when we think of something such as a past event our minds immediately begins to pass automatic judgments. These automatic judgments often result in automatic behaviors and always result in automatic emotions. Reflection is when you think about your thinking… the idea is to do your best to avoid judging the thoughts… judgments will inevitably arrive in which case you curiously observe the judgments. When reflection is well developed the person has the ability to calmly sit with curiosity about the automatic thought which popped into their head… in this state of curiosity they interrupt the automatic behaviors and often can positively impact the automatic emotions by reducing the degree to which they are consuming.
  • Example of reflecting on emotions – the mind makes up thoughts to explain the way a person is feeling. By reflecting on emotions a person is free to watch the automatic thoughts and then to change them if they are inaccurate. For example after seeing a rattle snake on a trail a person’s rapid heart beat might convince them that they are agitated with their hiking partner… upon reflection they find that they are simply still holding fear from the experience with the snake… this reflective ability will help the person to behave better towards their friend. People who are hungry often conclude that people in their environment are annoying… upon reflection they would find that the annoyance is internal and can’t be resolved by the behaviors of the people around him/her.
  • Mindfulness and living in the present moment – Mindfulness is a state in which you are a open-minded curious observer of the present moment. You look at the world as if you have never see it before… you allow your senses to interact with the environment as if it were novel and you had no knowledge of it. The past, the future, judgments, knowledge, projections etc. are calmly noticed and the person gently pulls their attention back to the present when such things arise. Most of our suffering is in the past or the future “what if…” or “I should have…”. by allowing your thought processes to stay in the present you reduce suffering while holding the euphoria of the moment.
  • Example of Creating new stories or intentionally focusing on positives and/or solutions – Our reality is our perceptions… no one perceives reality as it actually is… reality is perceived through our minds various filters. How can two people engage in exactly the same experience and have opposite thoughts and feelings about that experience? Often people in relationships get caught up in repeating the negative stories they have… or they continually think to themselves about all the problems which exist. Intentionally focusing on the positive narratives and on all the solutions available will encourage people to feel more hopeful and to engage in more relationship healing behaviors.
  • Gratitude – Almost all religions encourage the practice of intentionally contemplating that which you are grateful for. Practicing gratitude allows a person to live within positive thoughts… this produces positive and hope inspiring emotions.

Allowing Emotions – Emotions are changed by allowing them to be expressed in a safe and supportive environment. I am hesitant to say “changing emotions” as this is often a counterproductive intention. The paradox is that by allowing sadness you allow happiness to return. It is not changing sadness or avoiding sadness which facilitates wellness… instead the process of allowing and accepting frees us from the burden of unwanted emotions… what you resist will infinitely persist.

How you allow emotions – For authentic emotions to free themselves from a person it is best to create a space of acceptance, supportiveness, understanding, empathy, and safety. This means that while a person courageously shares their emotional experience the listener focuses on understanding the felt experience of the narrator while gently offering short reflections of emotional content to display their attentiveness and understanding… things for the listener to avoid are: projecting your own emotions on the story, trying to ‘fix it’ with behavioral suggestions, pulling the attention away from the speaker, passing judgments, disputing the validity or ration of the story, and withdrawing or avoiding full attention.

Trapped emotions impact behaviors – Often when an emotion is trapped and unattended to in the body a person will engage in behaviors to try and remedy their emotional discomfort. Addictions such as alcoholism are often a way to heal a person. There are many techniques that people use to escape reality… generally the reality that they are trying to escape is the somatic experience of an unresolved emotion. Expression of this emotion can relieve the need to escape… this can change unwanted behaviors.

Emotions and secondary emotions with undesirable behaviors – We have unfortunately not been very supportive in letting males have a full and authentic emotional life experience. Males (and females – more now than before perhaps) are systematically trained to believe that ration = maturity and emotions = immaturity or weakness. As such many people have “anger problems” do largely to emotional immaturity – they are unable to articulate to themselves or others how they are truly feeling. Males in particular are known for articulating two emotions – “I am Angry” and “I am frustrated”. This inability to isolate the true felt experience leads to an exaggeration of the angry and frustrated feelings… often the male (or female) feels embarrassed, guilty, confused, insecure, sad, lonely etc… but these emotions are unlikely to be resolved if they are being labeled by the term ‘angry’. Allowing a space for people to have a richer emotional experience allows them the ability to express their authentic feelings… by doing so the person would have the ability to resolve the emotion. For example, if a person learns that they are ‘guilty’ as opposed to ‘frustrated’ this insight offers them a direction as to how they might overcome the unwanted emotion. Without the ability to know ones emotions are people often become automatons… automatically behaving while creating irrational thoughts to explain the emotional experience they are unable to comprehend… this confusion can create a terrifying feedback loop of explosiveness… violent “angry” people are often excessively lonely and sad.

Emotions and Existential struggles – as an emotion remains unresolved often people will unconsciously try to make meaning of an emotionally harmful experience by reenacting the scenarios which led to the unresolved emotions. For example, many people who have avoided allowing themselves to feel the emotions related to an abusive parent will later end up with a romantic partner who engages in the same emotionally abusive behaviors. By allowing these emotions to be authentically expressed the person can gain the insight needed to seek out emotionally validating people.

Emotions and Relationships – When a relationship allows space for the individuals to be authentically emotionally vulnerable and available a deeper sense of intimacy in created which affects the way the people think about their relationship. People in securely attached relationships (relationships with validating emotional expressiveness) think and feel more positive about themselves.

People behave differently when they feel emotionally authentic… and people behave differently towards people who validate their being emotionally authentic.


William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy simplified

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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on the idea that emotions affect behaviors and thoughts, thoughts affect emotions and behaviors, and behaviors affect emotions and thoughts. To resolve a problem, CBT therapists generally try and promote a change in behavior and thinking patterns with the goals of increasing positive emotions.

CBT is a relatively linear and pragmatic model that is less concerned with catharsis and more concerned with tangible solutions. Therefore the therapist tends to be more active and might spend less time simply listening or gathering information than in other approaches.

  • In short the therapy is used to change problematic behaviors and thinking patterns as apposed to fostering insight, empathy based recovery, self-awareness, or meaning etc.

 

In CBT a client will engage in exercises designed to foster positive change. The therapist will confront the client in an effort to assist the client in challenging and changing behaviors and thoughts that perpetuate the problem.

CBT tends to be a more directive form of therapy. The therapist will lead the client on a journey towards identifying disruptive thoughts and behaviors. The therapist will collaborate with the clients so as to come up with differing ways of behaving and thinking. The client is then instructed to make the agreed upon changes.

CBT is often compared to the medical model as it has the goal of isolating and removing a problem. Like the Medical model CBT is rooted in modernism which is a theory of existence which maintains that objectivity (or facts) exist.

CBT instructs the clients to monitor their thought processes and to record all of their negative cognitions.

  • These negative cognition will be investigated in therapy to check their validity.
  • By bringing a person’s thoughts into their conscious awareness a therapist can then assist a client in making subtle alterations to those thoughts/beliefs.

 

Cognitive Example: “I am a horrible soccer player” this is a somewhat useless thought/belief that will likely bread hopelessness. It is hard to identify how this thought stands to benefit the client.

  • There is probably an underlying belief which suggests, “I should be good at soccer and I should feel inadequate about myself given my current level of play… poor performance should be accented with self criticism and self pity.”

 

The client could make two changes in this instance, one change is more on the surface and the other is more foundational.

Foundational belief change: If a client can monitor their “shoulds” so that they are able to hold that their “should based belief systems” are the root of their suffering. The new belief would be “I am accepting of the emotions I experience… cognitive based ‘shoulds’ do not dictate my emotional reactions.”

Surface level: “I am learning to become a better soccer player.” this thought allows for the possibility for change and is not inherently self critical. By changing this thought a person would likely have a different emotional disposition while playing soccer.

Cognitive distortions are beliefs that a person has that are ‘incorrect’. These ‘incorrect’ beliefs tend to be overgeneralizations. Example: “I am an inherently unlovable person” or “If I lose then I am a failure,” or “I should not bother trying as I am not good enough.”

Clients will work with their therapist to change these unhelpful beliefs.

The behavioral component of CBT essentially assigns behaviors that will very likely impact the solution either directly or indirectly.

  • Examples: if a person has a motivation problem related to exercise they could be asked to walk around the block every day for a week.

 

  • If a person is procrastinating looking for a job they could be asked to make one phone call or to write one cover letter etc.

 

Successive approximations – a client is asked to engage in behaviors that will likely lead to the desired solution. For example, if the goal is to clean the kitchen the first behavior would be to buy dish soap. If the goal is to get into shape then a ½ mile walk could be the first suggested behavior.

Systematic desensitization – this is a behavioral method most commonly used with phobias. The idea is to start small… if you have a fear of snakes; first try watching a program about harmless snakes on television… then perhaps you could visit a zoo and look at the reptiles from a distance etc. Start small is the basic message.

There are so many different theories and intervention strategies involved in CBT, but the basic message is:

 ‘Change behaviors and cognitions = change affect or fix problem.’

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

The Evolution of CBT = Mindfulness – moving from changing projections to eliminating projections

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Quick summary: I am going to propose that we can use mindfulness interventions to increase our ability avoid projecting our beliefs onto a stimulus. I am also going to suggest that we can use mindfulness to increase our reflective ability so that we can become aware of our projections before we react emotionally or behaviorally to that projection (knowledge, judgment, belief, opinion etc). CBT offers an intervention which helps a person to change a belief that they are projecting onto a stimulus. This is effective as unhelpful beliefs encourage us to experience unwanted emotional reactions and they encourage us to engage in behaviors which are against our best interests… the replacement belief (the helpful belief) encourages more desirable emotions and behaviors. I am suggesting that mindfulness is the next step in the evolution of psychotherapy (even though mindfulness is thousands of years older than CBT – misuse of the word ‘evolution’ has been noted) as mindfulness can teach a person to notice and/or stop projection altogether or at least can help a person to manage his/her reactivity to the projection.

Simple version –

  • We unknowing put beliefs and opinions onto things that we look at or touch or smell etc and then we are automatically and unknowing affected by those beliefs and opinions…
  • We then feel a certain way or do a certain behavior for reason that we cannot always explain or understand…
  • We seem to be acting and emoting without any control… we feel controlled by our environment…
  • Mindfulness may be the way to learn how to stop ‘putting beliefs and opinions onto things.’
  • CBT may be unintentionally encouraging our habit of projecting.

 

Perhaps you are not truly being controlled by your environment… perhaps you are being controlled by your own projections (knowledge, judgments, beliefs, opinions etc).

I propose this question: We are a country of immense privilege and resource… why are so many so depressed and anxious… what is the common source of our suffering?

When a person interacts with something (a person, an idea, a place, an object etc) with any of their five senses they unconsciously place their beliefs, knowledge, opinions, history etc onto that something which is the focus of their attention… people engage in behaviors and experience emotions related to that very projection.

In this piece when I say that people “project there beliefs onto a stimulus” I mean that we unconsciously put knowledge and judgments onto whatever is holding our attention…

We therefore do not solely attend to reality; we attend to a reality influenced by our subjective perceptions.

  • Example 1, if you look at a snake you might place the following beliefs on it: dangerous, evil, annoying, scary, useless, must be avoided, must be killed, the snake is going to try and kill me, snakes attack people for no reason, that is an immoral object.
  • Example 2, if you saw a person with a sticker that labeled them as being in support of a political party that you dislike you may project the following beliefs onto him/her: dangerous, evil, annoying, scary, useless, must be avoided, must be changed, the person is going to hurt our country, He/she attacks people for no reason, that is an immoral object.
  • How might your projected beliefs influence your actions and emotions?

 

What’s the point? Why should I care about negative projections?

  • The emotional and behavioral reaction that you have to the stimulus is automatically affected by your projections… you can’t feel or behave differently until you alter your projections.
  • CBT then helps people to have different emotional reactions and to engage in different behaviors by helping a person to change what they project onto certain stimuli.

 

I was Reading Dan Siegel’s ‘The mindful Brain’ and I was in the middle of one of his more scientifically mind-bending chapters (neurologically complex and specific) that was explaining the current research surrounding the part of the brain that places or projects ‘knowledge’ onto a stimulus and the part of the brain that encourages reflection (which would be your ability to notice that your mind is projecting beliefs) and attention without projection (which would be your ability to see a stimulus without placing judgments, ‘truths’, opinions, analysis etc on to it).

  • For more about Dan’s work please visit – http://www.drdansiegel.com/ – I cannot say enough about this professional… his work is absolutely fantastic. I would say that his scientific ability is respected to be at the highest caliber… what I was pleasantly surprised to find was how engaging and artistic his personal narratives are… wonderful, intelligent, inspiring, revolutionary books.

 

It then hit me that from a neurological perspective CBT is calling on the same part of the brain to simply offer a different and “better” projection onto a stimulus.

In short, if projection is the problem, than CBT might be strengthening the part of the brain which was ‘responsible’ for the problem. Excuse my oversimplification – again this is just a theory.

CBT encourages a client to isolate negative or hurtful thoughts and beliefs. The client is then asked to replace those ‘disruptive’ beliefs with positive or helpful thoughts and beliefs.

  • Research seems to be suggesting that projections primarily come from a specific part of the brain.
  • The physical and functional qualities of the many different brain parts are affected by use. To dramatically oversimplify this concept this would mean that increasing the use of a part of the brain will increase that part both physically and functionally (just like your bicep).
  • CBT might (this is just a theory) be increasing (in size and function) the part of the brain responsible for projections – which is the source of the ‘problem’.

 

Again, what is the point?

  • ‘Negative’ projections cause suffering and CBT helps people to begin projecting more ‘positive’ thoughts and beliefs onto the relevant stimuli.

 

  • Some philosophies suggest that projections cause suffering despite whether the projection is positive or negative.

 

How suffering is caused by Positive Projections.

  • The suffering arises as projection eliminated the novelty of life… instead of living life we begin to live within our projections

 

  • These projections are known and understood and therefore do not require sustained attention or interest…

 

  • Everything then becomes very boring…

 

  • We loose our curiosity and our passion…

 

  • We require the novelty of ‘new’ things or activities such as material items to elicit excitement… but this does not seem to help our suffering.

 

Common Example of projections making life boring

 

  • Think about when you first met your partner or best friend etc… what did you feel? Were you curious about him/her?  of course this person has changed – did your partner become less interesting, exciting, attractive, intricate, or did you become less interested in him or her… is it possible that you lost your curiosity as opposed to her/him losing anything to be curious about? What would happen if you stopped judging your partner? What would happen if you stopped convincing yourself that you had all the knowledge necessary about your partner? What if you removed all of the beliefs and knowledge that you have about your partner and then you met them again ‘for the first time’… what would be different?

 

  • Remember the first time that you saw your house? What did you experience… what do you experience now?

 

  • How about your first time seeing the leaves change… the first time it snowed… the first time you saw the ocean… the first time you experienced a thunderstorm or saw a rainbow…

 

  • You may still have very positive beliefs about all these things, but for some reason they are not able to elicit the same excitement and curiosity out of you…

 

  • These things are just as exciting and inspiring as they once were but your projections are keeping you from experiencing them… this causes suffering.

 

Mindfulness encourages a client to strengthen there ability to reflect upon the thoughts, emotions and sensations which the mind and body experience without taking automatic action.

  • Mindfulness reduces automatic reaction to projections.
  • this increases control and freedom.

 

Mindfulness also teaches a client how to pay attention to a stimulus without placing a projection (judgment, belief, knowledge) onto that stimulus…

  • You learn to see the stimulus as novel as apposed to understood, quantified, known, defined, labeled, categorized etc.
  • This makes everything interesting, exciting, and inspiring.

 

Children tend to be more mindful then adults… they can look at a leaf falling from a tree with complete amazement and glee… through mindfulness an adult can grow to have a similarly novel experience with such a stimulus.

In conclusion

  • CBT teaches us how to change or alter our projections

 

  • mindfulness teaches us how to stop projecting or to stop reacting automatically to projections

 

  • Research is suggesting that mindfulness increases the mass and function of the part of the brain responsible for reflection and for attending without projection.

 

  • I theorize that CBT may be increasing the mass and function of the part of the brain responsible for projections (both ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’ projections seem to come for the same part of the brain).

 

  • I am suggesting that CBT will evolve into mindfulness as mindfulness reduces the unwanted affects of both positive and negative projections where as CBT is designed to reduce the unwanted affects of negative projections alone.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.