Link emotions, thoughts and behaviours

We associate our emotions – positive or negative – with the ways we think about ourselves, how we behave and how we perceive others and the world.

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Why this matters

Our emotions are preceded by thoughts or memories, even when we’re unaware of them. Often, emotions prompt us to have physical responses, like increased blood pressure, sweating or blushing. In addition, we may behave in certain ways as a response to emotions.

When we understand the link between our emotions, thoughts and behaviours, we become more aware of how this works for others. This awareness is directly linked to emotional intelligence. It can help us improve our ability to manage our own reactions and respond more effectively to others.

Explore and reflect

Beginning with emotions, think about how you might behave when you feel:

  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Afraid
  • Excited
  • Happy

While we don’t react to emotions the same way, there are some common examples. When we’re sad, some people cry, some seek comfort in others and others seek solitude. When we’re angry, some may rage, yell or turn inward and withdraw. When we’re afraid, some may lash out or be very agitated. When excited, some people will literally jump up and down, while others will simply have a smile on their faces. When happy, some people become very generous and kind to others, while others simply enjoy the moment. Knowing how you’re likely to behave when you feel an emotion helps you recognize the emotions and gives you an opportunity to choose a different behaviour if you wish.

Think about what types of thoughts or memories trigger these emotions. Sadness is often triggered by loss or disappointment. Anger is usually a reaction to a perceived or actual injustice. Fear is a reaction to a perceived or actual threat. Excitement is usually anticipation of a positive experience. Being happy is a sense of well-being, joy or contentment.

In each case, our specific thoughts that trigger the emotion are unique to the current situation and our past experiences. However, the triggering thought  may not be about the current situation. For example, if you experience sadness when watching a funny movie, you may have thought about missing someone who finds the movie as funny as you do. When you pinpoint the thought or memory that provoked your emotion, you can choose the more appropriate behaviour.

If you know that everyone else’s behaviour and emotions are linked to their thoughts and memories, you can be curious about why they say or do certain things, rather than simply reacting to their behaviour or expression of emotion.

Take action

Be curious about every emotion you experience in the coming days. In particular, try to identify the thought or memory that triggered the emotion, as well as your immediate and automatic physical response to it.

Additional resources

To learn more, view Lisa Feldman Barrett's Ted Talk, You aren't at the mercy of your emotions — your brain creates them

Emotional triggers. When we’re triggered, our reactions may be difficult for us and others to handle. Learn how recognizing your reactions to emotional triggers can help you plan how to address different situations.

Stress reduction and the power of thought. The way we think events – past, present or future – affects our stress levels. Most of our thoughts speed past and remain below our level of awareness. By becoming conscious we have the ability to manage them rather than allowing them to manage us. 

The emotional impact of automatic thoughts. While automatic thoughts may seem inconsequential, they can actually play a very important role in our emotional health. This is because our thoughts can have a direct influence on our feelings. To put it plainly, the way we feel can stem from the way we think. 

What drives behaviour? When we recognize that all human behaviour is an attempt to meet a perceived or actual need, we can choose to look beyond the behaviour and become curious about the need someone’s trying to meet. Behaviours are like the tip of an iceberg – the larger submerged part is the need that drives the behaviour.

Contributors include.articlesDr. Joti SamraMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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