Cognitive Influence on Emotion

Understanding emotion remains something of a mystery, yet it appears to be such a dominant controlling factor in our lives.  Many of the effects of emotions cannot be explained and it seems, often ignored by medical and psychological science.  Is emotion a result of a thought or a result of physiological changes in the body, or both?  I believe emotion to be influenced by both biological and mental processes. And I believe emotion to be influenced by metaphysical experiences as well, but that is a totally different topic than what I present here.  In this blog, my main objective is to focus on the influence of cognitive factors on emotion.  How much do our thoughts influence our emotions? In my opinion, a great deal.


As we have already learned in our chapter on emotion, views on emotions have changed dramatically since the James – Lange and Cannon – Bard theories. In review, the James – Lange Theory was one of the first theories of emotion proposed in 1884 (Bear, Connors & Paradiso 2007) which suggests that we experience emotion in response to physiological changes in our body. In other words, our physiological response is the emotion. For example, we feel sad because we cry. The Cannon – Bard Theory proposes that emotional experience and emotional expression are independent of one another, that emotions can be experienced regardless of sensed physiological changes, and that the thalamus regulates emotion (Bear, Connors & Paradiso 2007). We now know that it’s the amygdala, not the thalamus that is responsible for emotions such as fear and aggression. We have come to realize that emotions are different than reflexes, that emotions are not controlled by structures of the brain in the same way reflexes are.

In my quest to discover more about cognitive influence on emotion, I came across the work of Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy. His publication of Depression: Causes and Treatment addresses the correlation between distorted thought and depression (Dobson & Dozois 2010). Beck’s studies on depressed individuals showed that thoughts alone can produce emotions, particularly how negative thoughts result in negative feelings and behavior. The diagram below shows the relationships between thoughts, emotions and behavior. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on examining these relationships as a means towards treatment.

CBT cycle

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of treatment that focuses on examining the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. By exploring patterns of thinking that lead to self-destructive actions and the beliefs that direct these thoughts, people with mental illness can modify their patterns of thinking to improve coping. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that is different from traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy in that the therapist and the patient will actively work together to help the patient recover from their mental illness. People who seek CBT can expect their therapist to be problem-focused, and goal-directed in addressing the challenging symptoms of mental illnesses. Because CBT is an active intervention, one can also expect to do homework or practice outside of sessions. (“Treatment and Services,” n.d.)

Below is the link to the NAMI website’s page on CBT. This page elaborates more on the definition of CBT and when it is used as a form treatment.

One of the ways in which a therapist would help a patient through CBT is to have their patient notice and monitor automatic thoughts (Dobson & Dozois 2010). Below is a video demonstrating the cycle of a negatively – framed automatic thought, the negative thoughts impact on emotion and behavior, and how a therapist can help a patient recognize and change their negative thinking.

I am familiar with the cycle of negative thinking all too well, as I’m sure we all are. It’s human nature to experience negative automatic thinking, perhaps some of us more than others. I find that my yoga practice is useful in helping me notice my thought patterns. It has been within the last 5 years since adopting a regular yoga practice that I have been able to combat my own symptoms of depression. Yoga, a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, is very similar to cognitive behavioral therapy in that it involves noticing the activity of the mind. In preparing for this blog, I was excited to learn about a form of cognitive therapy called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) created by Jon Kabat-Zinn. MBCT includes yoga, breathing, and meditation. MBCT combines the techniques and theories from Aaron Beck’s CBT approach with the Buddhist concepts of mindfulness. Jon Kabat – Zinn developed a program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). It is an 8 – week intensive training and is now offered in over 200 medical centers, clinics, hospitals all around the world. Below is a link to the MBSR website if you would like more information about this program. It’s so great to see mindfulness – based programs like this one becoming more accepted and integrated amongst the medical and science communities.

So the question remains, can we change the way we feel by changing the way we think? I am a strong proponent for this theory and according to Aaron Beck research supports this idea. The youtube video below shows a fantastic “meeting of the minds” between Aaron Beck and the Dalai Lama in which they discuss cognitive influence on behavior. Beck talks about the research conducted on people with certain medical disabilities who have negative thoughts about their symptoms versus people with medical disabilities who have positive thoughts about their symptoms. He goes on to state that research shows that those with negative thought patterns towards their own medical condition suffer more than those with positive thoughts. He suggests that those who are able to view pain, for example, as separate from self, have less suffering. Those who see pain as part of themselves endure more suffering. The Dalai Lama suggests that it is helpful to look at negative thoughts or things that cause anger or sadness from a wider perspective, more holistically. He explains that a broader perspective compared to a narrow perspective makes a huge difference in how we feel and that it is very important to view all things as relative, to see both the negative and positive in all things. I hope you enjoy the discussion as much as I do!

This very important and exciting information about cognitive influence on emotion reveals that we can choose to no longer be slaves to feelings of anger, jealousy, or aggression and instead create emotions of joy, happiness, and contentment through our very own thought patterns. Just as it is necessary to nourish our physical bodies through proper nutrition and physical activity, we must tend to our minds with the same care and attention. We are indeed what we think.



 Bear, Mark F., Connors Barry W. & Paradiso Michael A. (2007). Neuroscience, Exploring the Brain 3rd edition. Philadelphia & Baltimore. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins

Dobson, Keith S. & Dozois, David J. A. (2010. Handbook of Cognitive – Behavioral Therapies. Dobson, Keith S. Historical and Philosophical Bases of the Cognitive – Behavioral Therapies (pgs. 13 -15). Guilford Publications

 “Services and Treatment.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Aug. 2014.


6 thoughts on “Cognitive Influence on Emotion

  1. smreed2014

    You bring up a question here. Do we cry and then feel sad or feel sad then cry? I am all about picking both sides, because it is the easy answer and most logical, but if I really had to choice a side I’d say emotion is more cognitive than physiological. I pick cognitive because when I feel sad, happy, or upset yes the outside world plays a part, but mostly I spark an emotion from my thoughts on that outside action. In sense my reaction was brought on by my thought and interpretation of the outside action. If you by some chance every catch me crying, I could usually tell you what mad me sad. I find it hilarious when I find my daughter crying for no reason and when I ask her why she is crying she says she don’t know. I would think rationally she should have some idea of why she is crying, but then again she is 4 and rational is just a word she tries to say that sounds funny. All in all when I have a physiological action I usually can tell you the thought that sparked the emotion first. I don’t ever realize it right away, it usually takes some time of trying to think about it before I realize what made me mad, sad, or happy.

  2. chelleb52 Post author

    It’s so very interesting to think about isn’t it? The chicken or the egg question. I tend to think that in this context, it ‘s both. Thought and emotion go hand in hand. Our brains are wired to react to certain stimuli and those mechanisms are there for a reason; however, as we have evolved and continue to evolve, there seems to be less reason to allow ourselves to be held hostage to those parts of our brains (amygdala,thalamus, etc..). Fight or flight is useful for the moment, but if we don’t allow ourselves to get back to a state of non – reactivity and calm, then I believe there is the underlying potential to get stuck around negative thoughts. Thoughts of danger and fear, for example, can linger and affect us in a negative way if we allow. Therein lies, in my opinion, a great reason to evaluate our thoughts and the impact they have on our emotions on a regular basis.

  3. smhyland318

    Great post!! This is a great topic. First off I would like to say that yoga is imperative to a “quiet” mind and letting negative thoughts be processed and then released by the individual. I practice yoga as well and since I started a new, full time position as well as summer courses and making sure my 14 year old is keeping busy this summer I have been slacking on my normal, daily routine. I noticed a difference in my mood within a few weeks of not practicing. I was easily agitated and would be quick to jump down my daughters throat for things that would not have bothered me so much in the past when I had ample time to focus on letting go of the negative thoughts and emotions that are unavoidable. Needless to say, she noticed as well, lol. I make it a point to get in at least 3 routines a week in addition to other physical activities where I can be alone with my thoughts (biking, running, walking) regardless of how tired or busy I am. Even if it is something as simple as a few sun salutations at my desk at work (my co workers are pretty awesome and find my lack of care as to where I am hilarious) but it is just enough sometimes to have a few moments of breathing and mindfulness to let go of some pent up negative energy to last me the day.
    Also, MBCT is something that I have never read about until today and it makes perfect sense! CBT is an effective way to eliminate the negative thought process that is underlying in affective disorders like depression but I certainly feel that it is just not enough at times. Bringing mindfulness to the mix is brilliant.
    I also feel that the integration between mindfulness of body and breath is important in being able to experience an emotion fully. Often times people are angry at something or someone and are never able to reach the emotion that is causing the anger. When my daughter hit adolescence a few years ago she became extremely depressed. We started therapy and over the course of about 3 years, using CBT, she discovered that she was angry. Pinpointing where the anger was directed and then working through the emotions behind it, she is doing amazing these days, without the use of medications as her psychiatrist has pushed for over the years. I was always reluctant, given her age and hormones that may have been involved as well. I feel that diet and exercise coupled with the CBT is what brought her to the place she is now. I wish she would do yoga with me or even just on her own time but she is 14 and thinks that I am crazy when I talk to her about the peace of mind it brings to your life when you are open to letting it. Eventually she will catch on I am sure but for now, her laughing as I am trying to hold “crow” pose in our living room and the dogs knocking me over will have to do!! Thanks for some great information and the video was awesome. The Dalai Lama is one of my favorite people ever. 🙂

    1. chelleb52 Post author

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, especially those about your daughter. I think it’s so great that you have supported your daughter in exploring her feelings through seeing a therapist and talking about her emotions. We can all benefit in huge ways from exploring our own emotions. I didn’t begin exploring my own feelings until almost age 30 and I continue to do so through cognitive therapy and the practice of paying attention to how I feel and expressing it in the moment. It was through cognitive therapy that I too, like your daughter, discovered feelings that I wasn’t even aware were there, much less the reasons why. Our thoughts sure are powerful aren’t they? And the Dalai Lama has so much to say about that!

  4. mrgrtmcn

    This is a really great topic. I’ve learned about Aaron Beck’s theory in other classes. I think it is the best, simple, straightforward explanation. I really liked your comments about doing yoga to combat negative thinking. I’ve also found this helpful.

  5. kesnyder

    Aaron Beck’s work on thoughts producing emotions is very interesting. I try to tell people this all the time, think positive and you’ll feel positive. Negative thoughts lead to a negative person. At least now I know of something to back me up!I actively monitor my automatic thoughts because I wan’t to be aware of myself and it does truley help negative thinking.

    I agree that as humans we tend to think of the negative or point it out before we notice the good. I have found myself to have done this within relationship, intimate or friend, with family, or just a situation that I happen to pass. It is so important- and makes you a more pleasant person, if you can recognize this and change it. I have heard a lot of people talk about how yoga has helped them as well.


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