Thoughts Dictate Emotions

Have you ever felt like a victim of your emotions? Like your emotions were a car that lost its breaks and went careening out of control? If you’re experiencing grief, I’m going to assume that this has happened to you at one point or another.

grief and intrusive thoughtsWe’ve talked about narrowing your focus down to the sensations of breathing…in and out…to focus your attention back to calming thoughts rather than escalating emotion. This an excellent mindfulness practice when you feel the emotional train coming off the tracks, but how did you get to that shaky ground? Your thoughts took you there.

There’s a whole psychiatric practice, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), that focuses on the theory that outside things (events, people, etc.) don’t upset us, but rather the way we interpret those things does. To simplify, we have an emotional response to the way our thoughts frame events.

So what in the world does this have to do with grief? First, I am in no way telling you that your feelings of overwhelming sadness are wrong. No way José. But rather that if you’re bothered by specific behaviors that stem from emotional overwhelm it’s possible to better understand what and why you’re feeling the way you are by tracking your thoughts.

As an exercise, think of the last time your emotions took over in a way that bothered you.

  • THOUGTHS – What exactly was the stimulus that set you off? What were the exact words you were thinking in response? Not how you were feeling, but what were the statements you were making inside your head?
  • EMOTIONS – How did those thoughts make you feel emotionally? How did those thoughts and emotions make you feel physically?
  • BEHAVIORS – What behaviors came out of those feelings? What did you do?

hamster wheel of thoughtFor example, let’s say the act of waking up in the morning sets you on a bad course. Your alarm goes off. The language of your thoughts might be “Is it 7am already? I don’t have the energy for this. What’s the point?” (None of these thoughts are wrong, you’re just paying attention to what you’re thinking.) Maybe those thoughts made you feel weary, lethargic, defeated. How did those feelings cause you to behave? Did you pull the covers over your head, cry, hit the snooze bar, or call in sick?

If we’re talking about a specific behavior that you want to change, what would you prefer the resulting behavior be? Which emotions might produce the desired behavior? What thoughts would foster those emotions? Can you keep those thoughts in mind for the next time you encounter a similar situation (like tomorrow morning in the example).

This isn’t going to fix everything and it is not at all comprehensive CBT (if you’re interested there’s a bunch of information available online, or better yet, get connected to a licensed cognitive behavioral therapist, which we are not), but being aware of what you’re saying to yourself can, over time, help reshape the path of your thoughts, which will dictate your emotions, which will dictate your behaviors.


Thanks for visiting Grief Compass. We’re sorry you have to be here, but are glad we’ve found each other.

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