One of the first theories that highlighted the relationship between thoughts and moods was cognitive theory, or CT. This theory was created by Dr. Aaron Beck back in the 1970’s and focused on how people could change how they felt. Beck noticed that all his depressed patients had similarities in how they viewed themselves, their world, and their future. Specifically, he noticed that depressed people all had a maladaptive way of thinking. Their biased thinking patterns also led to certain behaviours.
His observations and work formed the essence of what we know today as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, or CBT.
C = Cognitions. How you think about yourself, the world, and how you interpret the experiences you have.
B = Behaviours. A series of actions that are often a reflection of how we think.
T = Therapy. A modification of the Latin word therapia, which means “curing, healing.”
According to CBT, our feelings are the result of either our thoughts or behaviours – how we think and what we do, respectively. However, while a lot of attention is often given to the power of our thoughts, not as much attention is given to the power of our behaviours.
Since the two elements are connected, changing one will, in theory, change the other. So, if you start by changing your thoughts, you’ll end up changing your behaviours. Conversely, if you change your behaviours, you’ll end up changing your thoughts. When one of these changes happen, you also end up changing how you feel. Here’s an example of what I mean.
“Sally” (not her real name) has been feeling pretty low in spirits for the last couple of weeks. She’s been losing interest in things she used to enjoy, she no longer talks to anyone, and she’s been eating more and more junk food. She also finds herself staying in bed a lot longer than usual. Here are some of the thoughts she has throughout the day. As you read them, ask yourself how you think she feels when she tells herself these things.
- “There’s no use getting out of bed. There’s nothing special happening in my life.”
- “My life sucks. Nothing I do today will change the way I feel.”
- “Today will just be like yesterday. Who cares whether or not I show up to work?”
By telling herself these things, how do you think she will feel? Probably depressed, lonely, and hopeless. If she feels depressed, lonely, and hopeless, how do you think she’ll behave? She’ll probably continue to stay in bed, leave her lights off, not talk to anyone, continue to eat junk foods, and essentially do nothing other than sleep.
There are two things Sally could do to change her depressed mood. One: She could challenge her thoughts and learn new ways for thinking in a more balanced way. Or two: She could start doing some behaviours that give her even the smallest amount of pleasure.
Depression is an incredibly debilitating illness. When you meet the clinical criteria for “Major Depressive Disorder,” it’s hard to think that anything will ever change. But, with time and hard work (and in some case, the right medications), a person can start improving their mood, even if only by a tiny bit.
One of the best things Sally could try to do is some sort of physical activity. This could be any kind of activity that gets her moving around and off her bed. Essentially, the goal is to have Sally engage in behaviours that are inconsistent with how she thinks and feels. Here are some examples:
- Getting up and putting on her favourite shirt
- Making a pot of coffee (or her favourite hot beverage)
- Going for a 5-minute walk
- Reading a book
- Taking a hot shower
- Watching a sitcom
- Call a friend
- Eat a piece of fruit or vegetable
- Watch your favourite music videos
By changing her behaviours (even small ones), Sally would start building the momentum necessary for changing her thoughts, and ultimately, her mood.
So, the next time you find yourself thinking depressing thoughts, or feeling like you’re in low spirits, start doing something physical. Basically, try doing some sort of behaviour that is simple, gives you pleasure, and is opposite to how you’re feeling. By changing your behaviours, you will notice a small shift in your mood, and ultimately, you will notice a shift in your thoughts.
Hoping this little bit of psychology helps in your personal growth.