The Trauma-Focused Cognitive Triangle
Have you ever heard of the cognitive triangle? No? No worries, I’ve got you covered. The concept of the cognitive triangle says that how we think affects how we feel, and how we feel, affects how we behave. Our behavior affects those in our environment and our environment can affect our thoughts.
Let’s say, for example, that you wake up and stub your toe getting out of your bed. Your first thought is, ” Oh no today will be terrible. My day is already starting off on the wrong foot (pun totally intended).” This thought causes you to feel pessimistic about the entire day. All-day long you are grouchy and rude to those around you. In turn, those around you are rude back. You think to yourself, “everyone is being so mean today, I knew it would be a bad day.” The cycle continues.
Now let’s change one part of this example. You still wake up and stub your toe, but instead, you think, ” Ouch that really hurt, today can only get better from here.” You leave your house feeling optimistic. You greet everyone warmly and smile at strangers and they return the kindness. You think to yourself, “What a wonderful day! Everyone has been so friendly today.” This cycle continues.
In both scenarios, the situation never changed! You still got out of bed and stubbed your toe. How your day would turn out was decided by how you thought about what happened. We can control how we feel and how we behave, and even the environment around us all with our minds. And you don’t even need to be a Jedi!
So where does trauma fit in when it comes to this triangle?
Trauma changes our minds in a profound way and has a major effect on our thoughts about ourselves and the world around us. These thoughts can cause feelings of anger, resentment, sadness, guilt, and panic. These feelings can cause us to behave in a variety of different ways. In my last post How to Recognize Children’s Behaviors, Caused by Previous Abuse or Trauma I discussed behaviors that may be a result of trauma.
In Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) we look at thoughts related to a traumatic experience. A common thought after a traumatic event is, “This is all my fault.” This thought leads to feelings of guilt. This guilt can lead to forms of self-punishment like not participating in enjoyable activities or thinking that you do not deserve to be happy. Discussing these trauma-related thoughts with a therapist can help provide more insight into your feelings and behaviors.
In therapy, we look at each of these trauma-related thoughts and we evaluate if they are true and if they are helpful. While some thoughts may be true, they are not always helpful. A therapist can help you think about the traumatic event differently which will ultimately improve behaviors. If your child has been affected by a traumatic event, contact a therapist to see if TF-CBT could be an appropriate treatment. If you live in the state of Illinois and need a Licensed Therapist, contact me today at [email protected] .