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Think-Feel-Act Cycle

Updated: May 11

I discovered the concept of the Think-Feel-Act cycle early in my sober journey and became intrigued.

Not everything I think is true?

I can control what I think?

These ideas were mind-blowing (pun intended) to me. Why don’t they teach us this kind of stuff in school?

TFA in a Nutshell

Every situation we encounter is neutral. Every feeling we have is created by a thought. Our thoughts give each situation a meaning, a reality, and in turn create a feeling. This feeling is what leads to an action and a result. Usually, these thoughts are those runaway thoughts we think over and over again draining us of our energy. And because we have been thinking these thoughts so much, the feeling associated with the thought can be programmed in us and can become a default feeling. This dates back to our primal days. The brain thinks it is helping us survive!

Let’s Look at a TFA Example

The situation: It’s 1:30 a.m. and I haven’t fallen asleep yet. Those are the facts. The facts are neutral. Everybody in the room (my husband and my dogs) agrees those are the facts. It’s only when I have a thought about those factsUghhh, why can’t I sleep? I’m NEVER going to get to sleep!that I CREATE my emotions/feelings about the situation. Our feelings about a situation do not occur out of the blue. There’s ALWAYS a thought behind the feeling. In this example my feeling, borne from these thoughts, is FRUSTRATION.

My feeling then creates my action. I’ll ruminate, toss and turn, get up and watch TV, think about all the things I’ve got to do the next day, dread the next day, take a sleeping pill, drink wine, etc. All these actions are creating a result that reaffirms my thought in the first place – I’m NEVER going to get to sleep! Check out the below chart to help illustrate this cycle.

Chart with Think Feel Act Cycle for Not Sleeping

But, thanks to the TFA Cycle, I know I can change my thoughts to get a different outcome. It’s really best to write out all of this in a journal or a chart, but if you’re in the situation above at 1:30 a.m., it’s okay to do it in your head.

The first thing I might do to change my thought, is decide how I want to feel. What do I want to be feeling instead of frustration? Your brain won’t believe it if you try to go too far from the original feeling. You can’t go from frustrated to joyful. Your brain won’t believe it. You need to take baby steps. Perhaps CALM could be the new feeling.

Chart with Alternative Feeling in Think Feel Act Cycle

Now let’s think of some baby-step thoughts that might bring us to a state of calmness. I’m not sleeping, but I am resting. I will sleep eventually. It’s not like I’ll NEVER sleep again. I slept last night. I can concentrate on my breathing. This is not the end of the world. Pick the thought that most gets you to where you want to be (calm).

New Chart New Thoughts, Feelings, Action, and Result

You can do the TFA cycle for everything in your life. I’ve done it for alcohol, things people have said to me, awkward situations, relationship issues, etc. I think one of the keys is to come up with a lot of baby-step thoughts.

Another Way to Look at it: Sometimes instead of looking at how you want to feel to change your thought, it’s interesting to think of the complete opposite of your original thought and see how you can get there. For example…

Going on a Caribbean Cruise Think Feel Act Cycle Chart

The opposite of the original thought would be: I’ll be the hottest thing to hit this cruise in a long time, and I’ll have the best time ever by being a non-drinker! That’s a wee bit too far away from the original thought. Your brain might have a hard time believing it. But let’s put Best Time Ever! as our Goal Thought.

How could we baby-step think ourselves up this mountain to our Goal Thought? It’s always good to get curious! Some baby-steps might be:

What if I’m curious about how it feels to go on vacation without alcohol?

I’m going to be curious and see if I can find some other fun non-drinking buddies.

Maybe I can go to the bar and see if the bartender can make me a fun mocktail.

I can be a scientist or journalist and pretend I’m doing a study on how others behave when they’re drinking.

Is it possible that I’m an even better dancer sober?

I wonder what the night sky over the ocean looks like when I’m sober or what it would be like to get to bed at a reasonable hour and see a sunrise over the ocean?

What does a “no hangover vacation” even feel like?

Now we’re climbing that mountain to our Goal Thought of having the best time EVER!

This is the power of the TFA cycle. Let’s see the chart again with one of our new thoughts.

New Thought, Feeling, Action and Result Chart

Amazing, right? Try it out the next time you have a runaway thought that takes you down a rabbit-hole of angst. Turn those thoughts around! When we learn to control our mind instead of letting it control us, we can lead a more balanced and calm life.

Mind. Blown.

If you want to learn more about the TFA cycle, I recommend this podcast from TFA guru, Rachel Hart

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