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Have you ever wondered how your feelings are generated? Do you understand what it is that triggers your emotions?

The fact is, there are many different answers to these questions in the field of psychology.  Let’s take a look at just one of those approaches from the world of cognitive therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches that all moods are generated by our thoughts and reinforced by our behaviors.

Most thoughts that occur in the heat of an emotional moment are automatic. Often, these thoughts occur spontaneously, without conscious intent; hence the term “automatic.” Thoughts that are skewed negatively can lead to amplified emotional pain (ex. Sadness, anger, anxiety, or hopelessness), which is often what prompts people to come to counseling to begin with.

A cognitive approach to counseling helps people with uncovering and re-framing negative thoughts with the assumption that changing these thoughts changes the intensity of the feelings.

What happens in cognitive therapy?

  • A counselor that uses cognitive therapy or CBT might start by asking you to describe the context in which particularly strong feelings are being triggered. What is happening? Where are you? Who are you with? What happened first?
  • The counselor might prompt you to name the different emotions happening in that specific situation. Sometimes there is more than one emotion happening at the same time. You might even rate the intensity of the feelings (Example: Shame 90%; Anxiety 55%).
  • A cognitive counselor will be especially interested in helping you identify the automatic thoughts that happened before, during, or after the situation you’re discussing. To help with this, they might ask questions like: What was running through your mind when you started feeling ashamed/anxious/sad/guilty? Sometimes there are several automatic thoughts related to a particular situation. Maybe you’ve experienced a flood of negative thoughts one after another. Sometimes thoughts can swirl around so quickly that they feel like a hurricane of negativity. When that happens, the therapist can help you address them one at a time. You might start with the thought that evokes the most painful or intense emotions.
  • You might be asked to identify and confront any distortions in your thought process. For example, noticing thoughts that are all-or-nothing, overly catastrophic, attempt to tell the future, attempt to read someone’s mind, or overly personalize things.
  • You might be asked to examine evidence that your automatic thought is not 100% true. The workbook, “Mind Over Mood,” has a wonderful Thought Record worksheet that can help with challenging those emotionally heated thoughts.
  • After examining the thought (and the evidence for/against the thought), you might be asked to try out a new thought. The new thought might not be all rainbows, unicorns, and false positivity. Instead, the new thought might be experienced as neutral, balanced, fair, and more reflective of a truth apart from emotional reasoning.
  • After trying out the new line of thinking, a cognitive counselor might check in to see how the intensity of the emotions changed as a result of changing thinking.
  • Perhaps, then, you might begin to explore how you would behave differently if the new thought were to take root.

Cognitive theory teaches that long-term thought change requires a re-examination of core beliefs.

After evaluating automatic thoughts over a period of time, many people find patterns in their thinking that reflect deeper beliefs that are at the center of their distress. Once exposed, you can dispute those beliefs and act against them.  This is when “schema” change takes place. According to Dobson & Shaw (1995), cognitive schemas reside in the long-term memory, serving as a “vulnerability factor” for their negative thinking. In order for enduring change to take place, individuals must create new lenses from which to see themselves, others, and their environment.

Cognitive counseling helps people develop an awareness of the unhelpful thoughts that are contributing to intense feelings. People really can learn to replace destructive thoughts with more functional thinking. In cognitive therapy, there is hope for a new perspective on life.

Interested in learning more? Check out the resources listed below or read additional articles on our Cognitive Behavioral Therapy page.


Burns, D. (1980). Feeling Good. New York: Signet.

Dobson, K. & Shaw, B. (1995). Cognitive therapies in practice. Comprehensive Textbook of Psychotherapy: Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dozios, D., et al (2009). Changes in self-schema structure in cognitive therapy for major depressive disorder: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 77 (6).

Froggatt, W. (2005). A brief introduction to rational emotive behaviour therapy. Handout.

Greenberger, D. & Padesky, C. (1995). Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think. New York: Guilford Press.

Jones, S. & Butman, R. Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Wenzel, A, et al (2009). Cognitive Therapy for Suicidal Patients. Chapter: Cognitive therapy: General principles. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.