How we think about situations and our attitude towards them has the most profound effect on how we respond.

A long time ago, in a psychology class far away, a professor introduced us to the idea of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Grid. I’m sure I didn’t understand the impact this diagram would have, or how I would learn to use it to guide my own intentional thought.

The grid is a simple way of looking at the physical, physiological, and emotional responses to situations. At the core of these things are our intentional thoughts — they are the hand which pull the strings to our marionette.

Our thoughts are the cogs and gears within our clocks, keeping us ticking on time or sliding out of rhythm.

The power of our thoughts — the ability to change our entire life by changing them — is not a new concept. But the distance between knowing this fact and practicing it is a vast chasm…the bridge between which can be the CBT Grid.

The grid looks a little something like this:

There are many different versions and representations of the grid, and they can be catered to an individual person and what makes the most sense to them.

Basically, the grid represents an overall situation, within which exists out:

  • Thoughts about the situation
  • Emotions felt during the situation
  • Bodily sensations during the situation
  • Behavior exhibited during the situation.

The crucible these four elements are the thoughts. If you can control your thoughts, you can control any of the other three reactions.

This, of course, is easier said than done. As the grid shows, while emotions, behavior, and bodily sensations are all affected by thoughts, they are also affected by each other. Severe bodily sensations, such as shaking, sweating, or nausea, can profoundly affect your emotional reaction, as well as your behavior.

Such too, a strong, emotional reaction can cause your face to flush, your palms to sweat, and even your thoughts to race (making them harder to control). The purpose of the grid is to help visualize the process.

In situations that elicit strong reactions from us, it is a good to have a tangible reminder of how to control ourselves.

The CBT Grid and Intentional Thought

Let’s set up a situation. In a staff meeting, during a presentation you’re giving, a co-worker points out a mistake you made in a calculation. There are several factors that will contribute how you handle this situation, including your thoughts about this co-worker and your thoughts about yourself (your self-esteem). Other contributing factors include your emotional state before the situation, how your body reactions to being put on the spot, and your knee-jerk reaction to the situation. There are many ways this could play out, but here are a few examples.

Option 1

You have had a rough day and entered the meeting already stressed out. You do not get along with this co-worker and feel that they are pointing out this mistake to embarrass you. Your face flushes from being put on the spot, and because you’re frustrated and angry.

Knowing that you’re flushed, you become more upset and feel like a fool. You make a rude comment to your co-worker and rush through the rest of your presentation.

Option 2

You are nervous about giving your presentation today. Your heart is beating quickly and your palms are sweaty. You’re worried about seeming incompetent in front of your co-workers.

After the mistake is pointed out, you feel worse about yourself, thinking that this proves you are inept at your job. You cannot meet eyes with anyone in the room and abruptly end your presentation, assuming they will find more mistakes if you continue.

Option 3

You enter the meeting feeling confident about your work. You are relaxed and feel that the presentation is going well.

When your co-worker points out your mistake, you are first surprised, but then relieved that someone caught the mistake before you submitted it to your VP. You thank you co-worker for catching it, and move on through the rest of your presentation without issue.

The difference between these three options are the attitude with which you enter the meeting and the effect your emotions, reactions, and sensations have on that attitude as the meeting goes on.

If you could change those negative thoughts from the first two options to the positive one in the last, all of them would have had beneficial outcomes that would have served you well — no matter what the initial feelings were.

The CBT Grid and Intentional Thought

Catching ourselves in the middle of a situation to change our thoughts is difficult and takes a lot of practice. But training yourself to do this has exponential benefits on your emotional and mental health.

This is not to undermine our emotions – thinking positively does not change a negative situation.

Happy thoughts do not resurrect our passed love ones or reverse tragedies. But they do change our reactions to these situations, and by doing so, change ourselves.

Emma Campbell

Emma is twenty-five going on eighty. Loves books, history, record players, breakfast foods, and existential crises. Hates coconut, fluorescent lighting, and theme parks. Cannot tell the different between cheap and expensive wine. Can tell the different between cheap and expensive chocolate. You can find her amateur everything at