Stuck in a Cycle of Pain: How to Get Unstuck from a Cycle of Unwanted Thoughts, Feelings, or Behaviors.
Perhaps you found this tip because you Googled something like “Why do I feel this way.” Maybe you’re feeling caught in a cycle of pain, anxiety, or hopelessness. It can often feel like we can’t control how we feel, and that how we feel now will never change. These unwelcome mental and emotional experiences might feel like they have us “stuck in a cycle” but fear not - there are some effective strategies to regain control and break free. In this tip, we’ll be exploring some of those strategies such as learning about the CBT Thoughts and Feelings Behaviors cycle, identifying the difference between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and learning some coping skills to get unstuck from the cycle.
CBT Thoughts and Feelings Cycle
The first step in understanding how we get stuck in a cycle of pain is to understand the factors that affect us. Every day we engage in a loop of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists call this the “CBT Thoughts and feelings cycle” in which thoughts affect how we feel which affects how we behave. By viewing ourselves this way we can identify that we have the ability to change what we do by learning how to better control our thoughts and feelings. Recognizing the cycle can help when we struggle with thoughts, feelings, and unproductive or self-destructive behaviors. It can help us interpret our destructive cycles and work on changing them so that we can then go on to achieve our goals.
It’s important to understand each component of this cycle; let’s dig a little deeper into the meaning and differences between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Thoughts are a mental cognitive process. You’re thinking thoughts right now as you read this. Where do you feel it? In your body? It’s probably in your head. Our brains take pieces of information and connect them creating our frameworks like beliefs, opinions, judgments, and perspectives. Thoughts involve internal dialogues, ideas, beliefs, interpretations, problem-solving, memories, and evaluations. Thoughts can be conscious or unconscious, and play a significant role in shaping emotions and behaviors.
Feelings are an indicator of how we are reacting to our environment. Pleasurable feelings are often labeled as positive (e.g. joy, excitement, attraction, contentment.) Emotions that cause pain or discomfort are labeled as negative (e.g. pain, embarrassment, sadness.) All these feelings can drive our behavior and inform how we respond and react to the world around us. They can orient us and point us towards what we want, and point us away from what feels uncomfortable. What part of your body do you think of when you think of emotions? Do you think of deep inside your chest? Or your stomach? Or cold tingly feelings in the tips of your fingers? Emotions are automatic and temporary reactions to stressors. Our feelings come when we assign meaning to the emotion we feel. That means they can be long-lasting.
An important thing to note about feelings is that our brain doesn’t often slow down to feel the feelings. It more often than not makes a quick note of the emotions, and then uses that emotion to point us in the right direction. Our society too makes it difficult for us to acknowledge our feelings. Society has developed around shaming people for having too many or too big of feelings. If you’ve ever felt guilt or shame for expressing your feelings, know that you are not alone.
Behaviors are the actions that we take in response to our thoughts and feelings. They are observable actions that reflect our thoughts and emotions. Behaviors can be intentional or automatic and can include physical actions, verbal expressions, and even facial expressions. Our behaviors are often influenced by our thoughts and emotions and can impact how we perceive and experience the world.
In understanding the difference between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, it’s time to apply this knowledge to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that keep you stuck in a cycle of pain. A thought log is a common exercise to identify the cycles that we get stuck on. Below is an example. Take a moment and think of an example in your own life and see if you can identify an inciting event, the go-to thoughts, feelings, and consequences of that incident. This activity can be helpful because you can identify a “rational counter statement” or a response to the cycle that can help you identify a new way of thinking. This new way of thinking can then help you get unstuck.
Example: My boss at work is angry.
I must have made a mistake - They’ll fire me for sure.
Feelings of sadness and anxiety
Spend time obsessing over mistakes
My boss could have been angry about anything. They are usually satisfied with my work, so even if I’ve made a mistake it isn’t a big deal.
Take a moment and try this tool with your own example. Think of a recent incident that caused pain or anxiety and follow the steps to identify the thought, feeling, consequence/behavior, and develop a rational counterstatement. Creating a rational counterstatement might be difficult at first, but remember that practice will help you identify the cycle of pain and give you a way out.
8 Steps to Stop Feeling Stuck in a Cycle of Pain:
1. Acknowledge and Accept:
The first step in getting unstuck from unwanted thoughts, feelings, or behaviors is to acknowledge their presence in your life. It’s important to remember that this is a natural part of being a human; this can help you avoid extra layers of guilt or shame associated with these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
2. Mindfulness and Awareness:
Practicing mindfulness can be a helpful tool to detach yourself from unwanted thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When you can observe your own experiences without judgment, you can create some distance between yourself and them and view them with a better perspective. Some techniques like deep breathing, meditation, grounding, and self-care exercises can help you stay present and prevent any thoughts, feelings, or behaviors from taking over. See also “Radical Self-Care” for help identifying a meaningful self-care routine.
3. Thought Reframing:
Our thoughts are extremely powerful and can have a significant impact on our feelings and behaviors. Learn to identify negative or irrational thought patterns and challenge them with rational alternatives (e.g. the thought log presented above). This process can help rewire your brain and gradually reduce the power of unwanted thoughts.
4. Healthy Distractions:
Engaging in activities that you enjoy can serve as a distraction from unwanted thoughts and feelings. Pursuing hobbies, spending time with friends or family, or diving into a creative project can shift your focus away from negative cycles.
5. Limiting Triggers:
Identify situations, environments, or people that trigger unwanted thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. By identifying what triggers an unhelpful or unwanted cycle of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, you can learn to avoid them for a time while you learn to manage your experiences.
6. Seeking Professional Help:
If unwanted thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are significantly impacting your daily life, seeking professional help is crucial. A therapist or counselor can help provide tailored strategies to help support you as you overcome these challenges.
7. Positive Self-Talk and Affirmations:
Take a moment to think about how you speak to yourself, in your inner dialogue. Is it full of compassion? Is it with a short temper? Once you’ve identified what this voice sounds like, think of a scenario in which a close friend talked to you in this way. Would you be ok with it? Would you want this friend in your life? This is a helpful way to get perspective on your inner voice and to identify if you need to change the way you speak to yourself.
8. Patience and Persistence:
Changing thought patterns and behaviors takes time and consistent effort. Be patient with yourself and acknowledge even periods of small progress. Celebrating these victories can help motivate you to continue toward your goal of getting unstuck from a cycle of pain.
If you feel that you are stuck in a cycle of pain and are having difficulty getting out of it, know that you are not alone and that you are not doomed to be stuck in the cycle forever. Take some time to reflect on what came up for you while reading this tip with the following questions:
What have I learned from understanding the difference between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors?
How do I see the cycle of pain playing out in my life?
What are some things I can do to practice identifying and getting out of the cycle?
Who can I reach out to to process with or get support from?
At TCFG you can schedule directly online with a CBT therapist. If you prefer talking to a CBT therapist first, you may call (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 to be connected with our intake department. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have six physical therapy offices and can also provide counseling and therapy virtually.
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