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What comes first: thoughts or feelings?

Recently, I was testing a piece of software designed to help with social anxiety. One of the activities it has clients do is to list the order in which things happen. It asked about someone feeling embarrassed at a party and asked me to say which came first:

  1. You thought "I made someone feel uncomfortable"
  2. You felt embarrassed
  3. Your chest felt tight
  4. You left the party

Note the order things are happening here:

  1. Thought
  2. Feeling
  3. Physical reaction

The problem is that this order is simply incorrect. This is a mistake people make all of the time. Yet all of the evidence points in the other direction: 100 years of testing out Freud vs James shows that the arrow of causation goes in the other direction.

What order does it happen in?

We assume that what happens is that we have a thought, and this then determines our feelings and physical responses. This is the intuitive way to imagine it. After all, our brains are in charge of our bodies, right? So our thoughts must come first?

Unfortunately, the evidence does not play out this way. In fact, it supports the opposite view. Our thoughts are often driven by how we are feeling. Therefore, the arrow moves like this:

  1. Physical reaction
  2. Feeling
  3. Thought

In the scenario where you go to a party and worry that you have made someone feel uncomfortable, things play out like this:

  1. Your chest feels tight
  2. You feel embarrassed
  3. You come up with a reason for it: "I made someone feel uncomfortable"

The first thing that happens is that the anxiety hits you. Not on a rational level in the brain, but physically. It makes you feel bad. The thought only comes after you are having those uncomfortable feelings.

Why is this important?

It is important because it changes the way we need to tackle anxiety. If we assume that the thought comes first and the feelings are based on this thought, cognitive therapy becomes really easy: we just need to change the thought and the feelings will never arrive.

Of course, anyone who has experienced anxiety and tried, knows that this is not the case.

You can tell yourself to be as positive as you want, and that there is no reason to be afraid of the little harmless spider. However, when it comes time to actually picking the little creature up those feelings are just as much there as they were before you decided to change your thoughts.

So how do we make cognitive interventions?

Intervening at the cognitive level is still really useful for helping reduce our anxiety. However, it works a little differently to the scenario outlined above.

The first thing we need to understand is that the physical response, the symptoms of anxiety, are still going to arrive. So are the feelings we experience when putting ourselves in anxiety-provoking situations. However, what we tell ourselves should not be this:

"There is no reason to be afraid, because this situation is harmless, therefore I just stop feeling this way."

Instead, the cognitive intervention we are looking to make is this:

"I am experiencing unpleasant feelings. However, I recognise that these feelings are driven by anxiety, so I am going to change my behaviour to train my body that this is fine."

In this scenario, we have no expectations that just changing our thoughts will change our feelings. We know it does not work like this. Instead, we are adding on the behaviourism component to the process.

Why does behaviourism work?

If we accept that the arrow of causation does indeed move in the opposite direction, that means that our thoughts are driven by our feelings and our feelings are driven by our behaviour.

Therefore, if we want to reduce our anxiety in a situation, we need to act as if we feel okay. This will teach our body not to produce these physical symptoms, and the feelings driven by them, when we put ourselves in this situation.

This approach should not be confused with "just do it" though. We are not saying "well, just act as if you do not have anxiety and it will all go away."

Instead, we need both parts. We need to make the cognitive intervention to recognise that our feelings are driven by anxiety, and then we need to use this knowledge as motivation to make a behavioural change that will make us feel better.

The difference is that we accept that we will feel unpleasant when we walk into the party. We know that we cannot magic away these feelings by changing our thinking. But we can understand the reasons for the feelings, and use that knowledge to challenge them by changing our behaviour.

Conclusion

The intuitive way of imaging how our bodies work: thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, is incorrect. That is not how any of us experience anxiety. The feelings come first, and the thoughts come later.

This means that we cannot change our thinking and make the feelings go away. However, we can use our thoughts to challenge those feelings, and slowly teach our body not to produce them.

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Published 19 December 2016. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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