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How TEA Helped Me Turn My Life Around

It's an acronym. Although, I do enjoy a hot beverage.

When it comes to therapy speak, I’d like to say I know more than your average sad sap. Considering how long I’ve worked on my mental health, it’d be upsetting if I didn’t.

And after several years of intensive therapy, I’ve really been able to catalog the different concepts that are most helpful to me.

And, sure for ever single thing one learns that’s helpful, there may be 20 more that do nothing for them. Personally, guided visualization and meditation have proved useless for me. And that’s fine.

Learning what approaches are most helpful for you is part of the process.

And for me, I found that one of the most helpful concepts I learned was the TEA triangle.

Formally, it’s known as the cognitive triangle, but I vastly prefer the silly acronym.

TEA stands for thoughts, emotions, and actions. Again, these terms are interchangeable with other similar words, and you might learn it differently depending on who you ask.

However, the basics are always the same.

Our actions affect our thoughts and our feelings, our feelings affect our thoughts and actions, and our thoughts affect our feelings and actions.

Pretty straightforward, right?

Here’s an example. If I were to have the thought, “I am useless,” I might then feel despair. These two occurrences might then prompt me to order a whole pizza and eat it in one sitting.

Oftentimes, this cycle can continue. What started as one offhand negative thought can lead to even more suffering. Devouring that whole pizza might spur feelings of shame, which could then prompt more self-deprecating thoughts, unhealthy behaviors, and pain.

The real magic starts when you realize that by interceding these cycles you can stop them in their tracks.

For example, let’s pick up after that spell of binge eating. Upon realizing that I’d engaged in an unhealthy coping behavior, I could then track what prompted it. Going forward, I could choose an action to hopefully inspire more positive thoughts and emotions.

I think the TEA triangle is less popular these days simply because cognitive behavioral therapy has fallen a bit out of fashion. These days Eastern mindfulness philosophies seem to be taking the forefront in many treatment centers. Dialectical behavioral therapy as well as acceptance and commitment therapy both stress that feelings can not be changed, and accepting them is a part of avoiding suffering.

This is somewhat incompatible with how I originally learned the TEA triangle years ago. I was taught that I could intercept a negative cycle by changing my thoughts, or creating new and better thoughts. We had whole days in my intensive outpatient treatment where we would dissect our recurring negative thoughts and disprove them based on evidence from our life.

But that’s not at all the sort of thing you’d work on with DBT or ACT. These philosophies emphasize that thoughts can’t hurt us, and letting them float past (leaves on a stream, anybody?) can be more beneficial than ruminating on them.

However, I still think that the TEA triangle can be helpful as a way to visualize unhealthy patterns in our behavior and stop them before they get worse.

To circle back, once again, on my example scenario, to intercede this cycle I might call a friend, tidy up my apartment, or take a walk. For me, these tend to be effective ways to deal with shame and create more positive feelings.

The TEA triangle is helpful for me in that it is a way to conceptualize the nebulous workings of my inner mind in a way that makes it seem more like a puzzle and less like a horror movie.

I must stress here that I’m not a professional, and that these speculations are derived purely from years and years of seeing innumerable therapists.

However, I figured that if this concept was beneficial for me, it might also help some others.

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