Can You Change Your Feelings By Changing Your Thinking?

One of the most common assumptions I encounter is the idea that feeling follows thinking, and that in order to alleviate uncomfortable or stressful feelings you need to change your thinking. In fact, there is an entire industry based on this idea. The strategies and techniques that fall out of this theory operate on the notion that all emotions follow thought, so if you change your thinking you will change your emotions. The implication being that changing your thinking and adopting a positive mental attitude will help alleviate stress, discomfort, and emotional turmoil, and enable you to experience a happy life.

In the early years of my therapeutic practice I would spend significant time and energy encouraging clients to manipulate their thinking and cognitions through techniques and strategies.  However, I was consistently disappointed with the results and it seemed to me that I was missing something.  As my work developed it became apparent to me that emotions did not simply follow thinking. Stress, anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and other medically unexplained symptoms all have their roots in emotional field, and my experience had shown me that mental techniques and thought changing interventions didn’t work. So I began to work from a framework that assumed emotion preceded thought and was to a degree independent of thought.  This brought success, so I figured there must be something in it.

My curiosity led me to research, and I found that in the last decade or so neuroscience has shown that emotional and intuitive processes operate at much faster speeds than cognitive processes. And, in many cases emotions occur independently of the cognitive system.  This means that our emotions and intuitions significantly influence the nature and flavour of our thinking and behaviour, and negative thinking is much more likely to be the result of emotion or intuition rather than the other way around. 

What’s particularly interesting is that even when you think you are making your decisions purely from a foundation of rational thought, your emotion and intuition are influencing under the surface. 

You cannot escape emotion and intuition; they influence every aspect of life. They form the basis of every choice and decision you make and when left unchecked can become blocked or imbalanced.  When this happens you are likely to experience discomfort and stress at best, and chronic health challenges at worst.

Paying attention and accepting what you feel is far more important that attempting to change your experience by altering your thinking.

4 thoughts on “Can You Change Your Feelings By Changing Your Thinking?

  1. Michael Honke, MA, MFT

    You are right. I am seeing exactly the same thing in my practice. Thoughts cannot occur in a disembodied vacuum in response to incoming stimuli and provide meaning and relevance to that stimuli, from that vacuum, to our affective domain. I am coming to the conclusion that the assumptions in cognitive appraisal theories of emotion are incorrect as well.

    1. kyle davies Post author

      Thanks Michael. I talk a lot about the relationship between thinking and emotion in my upcoming book, The Intelligent Body, due for release in May. My aim is to stimulate discussion and debate and to redirect focus from the deliberate manipulation of thinking patterns towards tuning-into emotional feelings.


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