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Alcohol and Mental Health

How the CBT Triangle Can Change Unwanted Behaviors

July 10, 2023
11 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 10, 2023
11 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 10, 2023
11 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 10, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 10, 2023
11 min read

Have you ever struggled with negative thoughts and feelings about yourself? Maybe you constantly beat yourself up, always find personal faults, or you feel as if you can never quite “get it right.” In many ways, negative thinking is a common human trait. Our brains have been hardwired through evolution to focus on the negative; it helped us register threats, avoid danger, and survive as a species.

Sometimes, however, these negative thoughts and feelings can create unwanted, unhealthy, or even self-destructive behaviors. For instance, continually feeling down about ourselves might cause us to use alcohol as an escape or as a way to feel pleasure. This self-destructive behavior, in turn, can further fuel negative thoughts and feelings, creating a vicious cycle.

Even if we know a particular behavior isn’t serving us well — and we don’t want to repeat the same pattern — we’ll likely keep engaging in it until we change our thoughts. This is because our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors all affect one another. And despite what many people believe, changing our thoughts can actually change how we feel and behave. The CBT triangle, or cognitive triangle, helps illustrate this. Let’s dive in below.

Understanding the CBT Triangle

The CBT triangle illustrates the direct connections between how we think, what we feel, and how we behave. The basic premise is that in every situation, we have thoughts — conscious or not — which give rise to feelings or strong emotions, which result in certain behaviors. For example, if we think, “I’m bad at making friends,” this might lead to feeling discouraged or hopeless, which might lead us to quit trying to make friends.

Interestingly, many of us wait for a situation or our behavior to change, assuming that we’ll then feel better or experience more positive emotions. But the CBT triangle says that if we start by changing our thoughts, our feelings and actions will follow suit. In other words, “where the mind goes, the person follows.”

When we understand how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors influence one another, we can learn to change unwanted behaviors or effect positive change in areas where we may be experiencing challenges. In fact, many mental health professionals use the CBT triangle as a tool to help clients change negative thought patterns and thereby break bad habits.

Using the CBT Triangle: An Example With Alcohol Misuse

The CBT triangle is a simplified tool based on the ideas of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which focuses on teaching us new ways of thinking that put us in better control of our behavior.

The original practice of CBT was developed by Dr. Aaron Beck and colleagues in the 1960s. In his studies, Beck found that underlying negative beliefs about the self resulted in depression. With further investigation, he developed the theory that people’s thoughts about themselves and their situation influenced their actions. From there, he concluded that we could alter our behavior by changing our thought patterns about situations and ourselves.

While originally intended as a therapy for depression, CBT has been used to treat many conditions, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and substance abuse.

In fact, research has found that many people with substance misuse problems benefit from CBT techniques, as it can help uncover the motivations that led to the misuse in the first place. It can also help break negative destructive cycles.

For example, let’s say that someone misusing alcohol has the underlying belief, “I’m worthless.” Situations that involve any type of perceived rejection or abandonment — which we all experience at times — might trigger automatic negative thoughts related to this belief, such as “No one likes me.” These beliefs then trigger negative feelings, which cause the person to turn to alcohol as an escape.

The CBT triangle can help us learn to change the underlying belief of “I’m worthless” into healthier, more positive thoughts. These help create more positive feelings, thus producing more positive behaviors. For instance, if we’re misusing alcohol and experience a break up, we can use CBT to change our perception of the situation from “I’m worthless” and “No one likes me” to “I have a lot to offer, and the end of this relationship isn’t a reflection of my worth or value as a person.” This way of looking at the situation decreases distress and creates more positive feelings that can prevent us from turning to alcohol.

Cognitive Distortions and the CBT Triangle

It’s absolutely normal for us to have negative thoughts and feelings. After all, we have more than 6,000 thoughts each day. These can include positive thoughts and negatively biased habitual thoughts (“cognitive distortions”).

People with cognitive distortions can greatly benefit from the CBT triangle since their thoughts tend to create negative emotions that produce the type of problematic behavior that reinforces a negative cycle. Here are some examples of cognitive distortions:

  • Catastrophic thinking. This distorted type of thinking is when we assume the worst possible scenario. For instance, we might think, “If I make a mistake, everyone will think I don’t know anything.” People who catastrophize may have experienced a traumatic event that causes them to be fearful.
  • Black-and-white thinking. Otherwise known as “all-or-nothing” thinking, this is when we view something as either good or bad and not something in between. For example, we might view a small mistake as a total failure and as a result, become afraid to try again. Or we might think, “If I don’t do everything perfectly, I’m a total failure.”
  • Personalization. This is when we take things personally, blaming ourselves for situations that are uncontrollable. For instance, we might say, “If only I did everything he asked, our relationship wouldn’t have ended.” People with depression, anxiety, or a history of trauma are at a greater risk of having this cognitive distortion.

To apply the cognitive trial to these types of thinking, we need to immediately recognize the negative thought pattern and force ourselves to look at it more realistically. For instance, if we catch ourselves thinking something like, “I always mess everything up,” we would pause and take a moment to reflect. We might ask ourselves, “Do we actually mess everything up, or did we just mess up a couple things?” or “Is it ok to make a mistake?” (Yes, it is!)

The more we force ourselves to take a step back from negative thought patterns and look at them objectively, the easier it will be to replace them with positive thoughts and respond to things in healthier ways. While we can practice this on our own, working with a trained mental health professional can be helpful — particularly if we have a cognitive distortion. A professional can help us identify negative thought patterns and utilize the CBT triangle to create more positive outcomes.

But if turning to alcohol has become an unwanted behavior or means of escape, Reframe can help. We provide the knowledge, skills, and tools you need to change your relationship with alcohol and become the healthiest version of you.

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