Learning your ABC’s
It is often wrongly assumed that our feelings and emotions are caused by external situations, people or events. For example, we often hear people say things like “I’m depressed because I failed the exam” or “she makes me so nervous”. These statements are based on the assumption that the external event or person has directly caused our feelings. What this does not acknowledge is that our thoughts and interpretations also play a role in how we feel.
The ‘cognitive’ part of CBT highlights the importance of our thoughts when trying to understand human emotions and behaviour. If we think about it, our feelings and emotions are impacted more by our perception or interpretation of an event, rather than the event itself. Our perception and interpretations come in the form of our thoughts (words or images in our mind). This explains why two people can have very different reactions to the same situation.
Here’s an example. Let’s say someone gives you feedback on your work. If you think “they’re pointing out my weaknesses”, you’re likely to feel anxious, defensive or angry. Whereas, if you think “they’re trying to help, I can use this to improve”, you may feel curious and grateful. As a result, your behaviour will be different. In the first scenario, you might argue back or stop asking for help in the future. In the second scenario, you might take the feedback on board and use it to improve your work.
The idea that people’s thoughts influence the way they feel and behave is central to CBT. It is also central to the information presented in this course, as it helps us understand a bit about where perfectionistic behaviours come from. This idea is summarised in the picture below. As you can see, a situation (A: activating event) triggers your automatic thoughts (B: beliefs), which then leads to your reaction (C: consequences). Your reaction consists of your emotions (e.g., anxiety, disappointment), physical response (e.g., pounding heart, sweating), and your behaviour (e.g, avoiding, checking). You can remember this sequence by the ‘ABC’ acronym.
Our automatic thoughts or beliefs can be habitual and happen so quickly that we are often not consciously aware of them. That’s why it can feel like the situations we encounter lead directly to the consequences. We are often more aware of our emotions, physical sensations and actions, than we are of our thoughts. However, our thoughts are there, and they impact all of these things. As such, it is important to become skilled at recognising our thoughts. The sections below will guide you further in how to do this.
The feedback loop
As we mentioned above, the ABC model helps us understand how our thoughts can influence our reaction to a situation. In this section, we take it a step further by looking at how our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours interact with each other. In reality, it’s not a one way street between these factors. Once a situation has triggered our thoughts and a reaction, a feedback loop begins. In the feedback loop, our thoughts, feelings and behaviours all affect one another. This relationship is shown in the diagram below.
In other words, what we do (our behaviour) can affect what we think and how we feel, and vice versa. Similarly, how we feel can affect what we think. Take for example, a situation where you have to sit a test. This might trigger thoughts like “I have to get an A+” and “I must study hard and prepare perfectly for this”. This triggers you to feel anxious and tense in your body. In response, you start planning for how to prepare for the test. You make several lists and rearrange your study space, but you delay actually starting your studies.
The result of these behaviours is that nothing gets done, therefore your anxiety is reinforced. This may also trigger further perfectionistic thoughts, like “I’ve not ticked anything off my list, I’m such a failure” and “I don’t have what it takes”. In response, your anxiety further increases and you may feel other emotions, like disappointment and demotivation. So, you can see how unhelpful thoughts can set off a cycle of unhelpful behaviours and emotions.
One way to reverse the negative cycle is to change your thinking. This is especially important when your thoughts are biased or distorted in some way. You can also reverse the feedback loop by changing your behaviours and emotions, however, these strategies will be covered in future weeks. This week is all about how to manage unhelpful thoughts. In the sections below, we discuss automatic thoughts and where they come from in more depth.