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Thoughts, feelings and behaviours

In this article, we take a more detailed look at Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT which is used to help with depression.
© University of Reading

We’re often not aware of the impact our feelings and behaviours have on each other, and because of this relationship, changing our behaviours can have a very big effect on our emotions. We can often tackle depression by changing key behaviours, and for many young people this is the most direct way to help them improve their mood.

So where do thoughts fit in? When we talk about thoughts we’re referring to a lot of different mental activities, including wishes, hopes, plans, predictions, judgments and memories. Thoughts often include words but sometimes they can include pictures, speech, or even smells.

Most of the time we don’t notice our thoughts – they go on in the background, helping us make decisions and carry out many tasks automatically. Sometimes, we become aware of our thoughts – for example when we try to work out a puzzle, or remember a specific event, or do a specific task, like write a letter to a friend or learn a new language.


Daniel Kahnmann, described automatic (fast) thinking as ‘System 1’ and deliberate (slow) thinking as ‘System 2’. He has also written a very successful book ‘Thinking fast and slow’ showing how fast or automatic thinking can lead us to make many mistakes in everyday life. Automatic thinking (‘thinking fast’) means that we can get on with life for most of the time without too much effort. Automatic thinking helps us make decisions quickly, recognise patterns, fill in gaps in information, and carry out well-rehearsed behaviours.

Psychologists have also noticed that automatic thoughts can have a direct and really immediate impact on our feelings or emotions, and on our behaviours. If you find this hard to imagine try this exercise:

Imagine yourself walking home, or to your car, one dark evening. You’re alone, wondering about what to have for dinner. Your thoughts are disturbed by a quiet, rustling noise off to your left. What is it?

Thought 1 – “It’s a cat”

What is the effect on your emotions? What do you do differently?

3 circles in a cycle. 1st circle - it's a cat, 2nd circle - feel relaxed, 3rd circle - carry on walking

“Ok, it’s a cat. You can relax and carry on walking to your car. What is it you’re having for tea?”

Thought 2 – “It’s a mugger”

What is the effect on your emotions? What do you do differently?

Ok, so this is probably making you feel something quite different. You may feel tense, anxious, or fearful. You might feel sensations in your body – your hands sweat, your heart beats faster, your stomach churns.

And what do you do? Perhaps you walk a bit faster, or look for somewhere to run or somewhere to hide.

3 circles in a cycle. 1st circle - it's a mugger, 2nd circle - feel frightened, 3rd circle - look for somewhere safe

Then a cat walks out from behind a wall and you relax.

This simple example shows us just a thought (not a fact), changes how we feel, and what we do.

The link between our thoughts, our emotions or feelings, and our behaviours was highlighted by an American psychiatrist Dr Aaron T. Beck. In his clinical practice, Beck worked with individuals with depression and noticed that negative thinking was a core aspect of depression. He proposed that negative thinking both made people feel depressed and made it hard to recover from depression.

Just as we’ve seen above, Beck proposed that the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviours was inter-linked – changing one of the parts would have an effect on any of the others.

3 circles in a cycle. 1st circle - cognitions (thoughts), 2nd circle - emotions (feelings), 3rd circle - behaviours

As a result, Beck developed a new form of psychotherapy for depression. Rather than focusing on the past, he aimed to use psychotherapy to help tackle depression by changing people’s cognitions (or thoughts) and their behaviours. By changing one, or both, of their cognitions or behaviours, Beck proposed that this would also change their emotions, and improve depression. The new therapy was therefore called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or CBT.

CBT has since become one of the most widely researched and used types of psychotherapy. It’s been developed to treat a wide range of physical and mental health problems, and adapted for use with people of different ages. You can find out more about CBT for anxiety and depression in our other FutureLearn course Understanding Anxiety, Depression and CBT. There are also many books based on CBT that have been developed to help adults and teenagers help themselves. You can find a list of these at the end of the course.

© University of Reading
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Understanding Depression and Low Mood in Young People

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