The connections between thoughts, feelings and behaviours

In the story of Milo, Jess, Maria, and the math test, it’s easy to see how the students’ behaviours were fueled by their feelings of anxiety. Like all emotions, anxiety is made up of complex interactions between our thoughts, our feelings and our behaviours. 

Thoughts, feelings and behaviours

Mouse over each circle for a description.

The analogy of an iceberg helps to illustrate that what we see above the water line (behaviour) is just a fraction of what is going on below the surface (thoughts and feelings). 

For example, when a teacher asks a question in class, a student who feels anxious might respond by:

  • avoiding eye contact (behaviour)
  • noticing her heart racing and butterflies in her stomach (feelings)
  • telling herself that if she answers and gets it wrong, people will laugh and think she’s stupid (thoughts)

The teacher can only see the student looking down to avoid his gaze, which could be interpreted in many ways, since he isn’t able to know what she’s feeling and thinking.

We often focus on changing behaviour without considering the thoughts and feelings that accompany it. Paying attention to what’s under the surface can influence what happens above the water line.

Classroom-based interventions that target each point of the Thoughts (T)—Feelings (F)—Behaviour (B) triangle can improve outcomes for students. For example:

Teaching students how to focus on helpful, realistic thoughts (T) can increase their confidence (F) and allow them to perform at their best (B).

 Teaching students how to recognize and quiet physical symptoms of anxiety (F) can help them think more clearly (T) and make fewer mistakes (B).

Providing opportunities for students to be brave and face fears (B) can help them feel confident (F) and increase their ability to think realistic thoughts, like “I can handle it” (T). This in turn can help them improve their performance over time.

What’s the difference between a thought and a feeling?

It’s easy to confuse thoughts and feelings. One simple way to tell the difference is that thoughts are usually described using phrases with two or more words— “It’s my birthday” or “Lunch is soon”and feelings can be described using one word—“happy,” “excited,” “hungry.”

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