What Is The Cognitive Triangle? CBT Tool For Mental Health

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Are you concerned about your mental health or a parent worried about your child’s emotional wellbeing? Understanding the Cognitive Triangle might be a game-changer for you.

In this article, I’ll dive deep into this crucial tool used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It’s one of the most fundamental CBT strategies and one of my favourites as a clinical psychologist! 

We’ll explore how the CBT triangle relates to mental health, why it’s vital for both children and adults, and even provide real-life examples and a free cognitive triangle worksheet to get you started.

The CBT Triangle: A Quick Explanation

The Cognitive Triangle – also known as the CBT Triangle – is a powerful tool used in CBT.

It’s a visual representation of the interrelated nature of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. These represent each corner of the triangle.

This concept goes way beyond just thinking positive thoughts. It shows how altering one corner of the triangle can impact the other two, shaping our overall mental well-being.

CBT Therapy: Where the Cognitive Triangle Fits In

CBT Therapy, or Cognitive Behavior Therapy, is a go-to therapeutic framework for many mental health professionals. Cognitive means thinking.

One of the key components of CBT is the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Triangle (CBT Triangle). Developed by Aaron T. Beck, also known simply as Aaron Beck, this model is a cornerstone for cognitive behavioral therapists.

The cognitive triangle is a beautifully simple practical framework for understanding and improving mental health.

Cognitive Triangle CBT Worksheet by They Are The Future

The Cognitive Triangle & Mental Health

The Cognitive Triangle is invaluable for people with a variety of mental health conditions. From anxiety disorders to obsessive-compulsive disorder, simply put, this tool can help alleviate psychological distress and empower people.

Understanding its framework can be pivotal for anyone grappling with mental health issues.

Though the cognitive triangle is incredibly powerful in helping us understand children’s mental health difficulties, we wouldn’t expect a child under the age of around 9 or 10 years to actually be able to understand or adapt their thoughts.

At this age, it’s more about working on the behavioral side (more on that later) with a lot of help from parents or other adults.

woman sitting down at home

The Cognitive Triangle: Vital For Children and Adults Alike

The Cognitive Triangle isn’t just for adults. It’s vital for children too. If your child can understand the connection between their thoughts, feelings and behavior, they can use this knowledge to their benefit throughout their lives.

The cognitive model helps both age groups understand how negative thoughts can lead to cognitive distortions and negative emotions.

Maladaptive thoughts can hinder us from facing life’s challenges effectively. If we can start to identify problematic or unhelpful thoughts regularly and gently challenge them, we can suddenly gain a clearer path through emotional and cognitive obstacles.

teen boy looking out to sea

CBT Triangle: Exploring the Three Parts

The Cognitive Behavioral Triangle comprises three essential elements that interact with each other: thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Each part of the triangle influences the other two, making it crucial to understand all parts of the cognitive triangle.

Let’s break down each point.

Thoughts: The First Point of the Triangle

Thoughts are your mental filter, shaping how you view the world. They can be automatic thoughts that pop up regularly by habit, or initial thought responses to a particular situation.

Understanding this point can pave the way for adopting a new idea or new thought if your current thought is not serving you well.

Emotions: Feelings Triggered By Thoughts in the Cognitive Triangle

In the Cognitive Triangle, emotions are the underlying feelings triggered by our thoughts. Our nervous system responds accordingly, playing a key role in emotional regulation.

Once emotions are activated, they drive our actions or behaviors. They may also trigger new feelings.

Behaviours: The Actions We Take In Response To Our Thoughts and Emotions

Behaviors are an important factor in the Cognitive Triangle, often contributing to a negative cycle.

For instance, if a negative thought about social situations sparks anxiety, you might start avoiding them. This avoidance can worsen the anxiety and reinforce negative thoughts like, “I’m useless,” leading to feelings of depression.

The good news is that by adopting a new behavior, such as gradually facing what you avoid, you can break this negative cycle. This change not only builds healthy ways of coping but also positively influences your thoughts and emotions.

For example, by facing a social situation you’d typically avoid, you might realize it’s not as daunting as you thought. This new experience can replace the previous negative thought (“I’m useless”) with something more positive (“I can do this”), leading to uplifting emotions like confidence or relief.

teenage girl sitting down serious thoughtful

How Can Understanding the Cognitive Triangle Help You or Your Child?

The Cognitive Triangle serves as a powerful way to interrupt the negative cycle of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

By being aware of negative self-talk, cognitive biases, and our internal dialogue, we can become more naturally positive thinkers. We can learn that we have a lot of control over our thinking processes.

The Cognitive Triangle also teaches us the power of making very small changes to our behaviour. For example, smiling and making eye contact in a social setting when we feel anxious might lead to someone approaching us to say hello. This might lead to a positive thought such as: “people see me as friendly”. This in turn can trigger positive emotions like pride and happiness.

As you can see, when we aim to make changes in the cognitive triangle, we focus on the thoughts and behaviors, because these are the most accessible to change.

Use of the CBT triangle can be especially helpful in stressful situations, offering a structured approach to managing your emotional and cognitive responses.

CBT Triangle Example (Laura, mother of 3)

Laura, a busy mother juggling work and family life, found that her tendency to think in worst-case scenarios had a negative impact on her daily life. Every morning began with a whirlwind of thoughts: “What if I mess up at work today?” or “What if my kids get into trouble?” These thoughts set a tone of anxiety that pervaded her day.

She often found herself mind reading, assuming the worst about what others thought of her. During PTA meetings or work conferences, she’d interpret a colleague’s neutral expression as a sign of disapproval, affecting the way things felt to her and amplifying the importance she assigned to these encounters.

Laura was introduced to the Cognitive Triangle during a parent-teacher meeting where mental health resources were discussed. Intrigued, she started applying its principles. She made a conscious effort to challenge her initial negative thoughts with evidence from her surroundings. For instance, instead of defaulting to mind reading at meetings, she began to focus on the factual: the agenda, the topics discussed, and the outcomes.

By consciously revising her thoughts, Laura noticed a significant drop in her stress levels. The practice made her realize that her initial interpretations were often distorted. She began replacing her automatic negative thoughts with balanced ones, like “Not everyone is judging me,” and “I can only control my actions, not others’ thoughts.”

These positive changes in how she interpreted situations reduced her stress and improved her overall well-being. It even had a domino effect on her family, as they noticed Laura becoming more relaxed and happier.


Cognitive Triangle Example (Noah Age 16)

Noah, a high school student, dreaded social events and worried about bad grades, often labeling himself a total failure. His days were a maze of irrational thoughts that led to heightened anxiety in social situations.

What if I say something stupid?” or “What if I fail this exam?” were constant thoughts that plagued him.

These irrational thoughts affected his emotional well-being to a point where he couldn’t concentrate in class.

Instead of socializing, he started avoiding lunch breaks and after-school activities, worsening his anxiety and reinforcing his belief that he couldn’t fit in or excel academically.

Noah came across the Cognitive Triangle during a school assembly focusing on mental health. He began to gradually apply its principles to his thought patterns. He questioned the logic behind his fear of bad grades, asking himself, “Is one bad grade going to define my life?”

By challenging these unhelpful thoughts, he realized they were often exaggerations. This led him to rethink how he approached social situations. Instead of avoiding them entirely, he started taking small steps, like sitting with a classmate during lunch or participating a little in group discussions.

As he took these steps, Noah began to notice changes in his confidence. He felt empowered. His grades improved, and the positive experiences in social settings started to change his previous, anxious thoughts.

Noah even began enjoying social interactions, which significantly reduced his anxiety.

This newfound awareness helped Noah transform his outlook. Now, instead of falling into a cycle of negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, he found himself in a more positive, reinforcing loop.

Cognitive Triangle CBT Worksheet 2 from They Are The Future

Cognitive Triangle Worksheet

Understanding the basics of the Cognitive Triangle is just the first step. Now it’s time for you to put it into action!

My free CBT worksheet will help you apply this CBT technique in real life. You’ll be able to help yourself or your child identify and reshape unhelpful thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

The cognitive triangle worksheet is a valuable tool for exploring thought patterns and making lasting changes.

Keep in mind that using the worksheet is not a one-time process but an ongoing journey toward better mental well-being. You can print it out as many times as you like!

I have deliberately kept the worksheet very simple and self-explanatory. You’ll quickly get the hang of identifying your problematic thoughts and actions

Cognitive Triangle CBT Worksheet: Download Yours Here

CBT Therapy: Getting More Help

Taking the initiative to learn about the Cognitive Triangle is a significant first step.

However, for more complex mental health disorders, a comprehensive approach is often needed.

Consulting a healthcare provider and getting a referral to a clinical psychologist or a qualified CBT therapist is crucial at this point.

Your therapist will collaborate with you to create a treatment plan tailored to your needs. Identifying a skilled provider who is a good fit for you is a crucial step. It ensures you embark on your mental well-being journey from the most effective starting point.

​The Cognitive Triangle: Summary

Understanding the Cognitive Triangle can be a transformative step for better mental well-being.

Whether you’re a parent seeking to empower your child or someone wanting to take charge of your emotional life, take it from me: This tool is invaluable.

Knowledge is power, and with the right support, you’re well on your way to a healthier, happier mind.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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