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We're Not Thinkers, We're Feelers

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: The Thinking -->Feeling -->Behavior Cycle

By Kristin M. Snowden, MA, LMFT CWDF

We all like to think that we are, first and foremost, highly intelligent, "thinking" beings. We like to believe that we are rational, thoughtful, contemplative individuals. However, as we continue to expand our research on how our brains receive, store, and interpret external information, evidence continues to show that we move through life predominantly through our emotional and "survival" parts of our brains. Executive "thinking" parts of our brain come on later, only if we give our brains and bodies enough time, energy, and down-regulation to allow that process to supersede our "feeling" and "survival" brains (where all of our trauma, hurt, and shame are stored). In other words, if we want to EVER be "thinking", highly intelligent beings, we have to take many, purposeful steps to make that a reality. This blog helps you understand how our THINKING and FEELING processes work and how they impact how we show up, interact with others, and make choices. I also suggest some healthy coping skills you can start incorporating into your life so that you can, eventually, become an Executive Functioning Thinker AND Feeler (at least some of the time).

1) External Events Occur That Are Out of Our Control

a. Every second of everyday our brain is scanning our environment, assessing peoples body language, the things around us, trying to determine what's a potential threat. There are also many things happening around us that require our brains to develop "a story" around what happened.

  • Loss of a loved ones (death, break-ups, etc.)

  • Arguments or conflicts with others

  • loss of job, finances

  • challenges in the work place or at home

  • Geopolitical events

b. Our brain "writes stories" around happy occurrences, as well. But it usually doesn't spend that much time paying attention to happy or "good" things, because "good things" don't tend to kill you or cause you harm.

c. Traumatic events are anything that cause us to experience loss of control, loss of context, loss of connection with others, and loss of choice.

d. While we really only have control of ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviors. We often "write a story" in our head that we can control someone else's behaviors or control our environment.

2) How We Interpret/Think About the Challenges We Face in Life--"The Story We Write About it"

a. Based on our value system, culture, religion, observations we’ve made throughout our lives, things people have said to us, assumptions, stereo-types

b. We are constantly collecting data, making assumptions, conducting mini-experiments and gathering information—UNCONSCIOUSLY, SUBCONSCIOUSLY, and CONSCIOUSLY

3) We Experience Feelings and Emotions Based on the Story We're Telling Ourselves About What Happened--Whether or not that story is accurate in any way

a. Feelings are Chemicals/hormones/physiological responses to our thoughts.

i. Fight or flight, survival, reproductive urges, etc.

ii. Endorphins, serotonin, adrenaline, dopamine, etc.

iii. Where do you feel sadness? Joy? Anxiety? Fear? Anger?

iv. What would you call that sensation in your body?

b. Start paying attention to these sensations in your body. That actually helps you move from a Feeling State, to a more Executive Functioning Thinker

4) The Behavior You Choose to "Manage" the Emotions You're Experiencing and the Thoughts/Story You're Telling Yourself:

a. Your behavior is your outward response to your thoughts and feelings and/or other peoples' behaviors (or your environment)

b. This is the section where therapists discuss "Coping Skills" with their clients--how you choose to regulate your emotions, vet your thoughts for accuracy, explore what is based on trauma or shame and what's reality, determine the "best way forward"

Coping Skills: How we Deal With the Things That Happen in Life

Negative Coping Skills are Anything that Causes us to:

· Avoid (permanently, versus temporarily)

· Ignore

· Distract from

· Numb

· Projecting with Blame and Aggression

Healthy Coping Skills are:

Anything that allows us to fully ACKNOWLEDGE AND PROCESS our thoughts and feelings

  • What are the thoughts I have about what happened? Do those thoughts make sense? What are these thoughts based on? How am I feeling right now? Where do I feel it in my body?

  • What's the story about telling myself? What's the evidence that this story is accurate?

  • Sometimes it is necessary to de-escalate or calm one’s racing thoughts or emotional flooding FIRST before acknowledging and processing ones thoughts and emotions

Potential Healthy Coping Skills

Anything that helps you "down regulate" from uncomfortable, irritating, or scary emotions, so that your "thought" brain (the pre-frontal cortex) can have more time to decide how to healthily move forward and behave “appropriately“:


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