The ABC's of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).

Jason Brien.

We generally believe that negative events/stressors cause us to act or feel in certain ways. The reality is, negative events and stressors are neutral, arbitrary events which we as humans give meaning to. When adversity, stress or trauma occurs, the first thing we attempt to do is explain to ourselves why it happened rather than examine what underlying beliefs caused us to feel or act the way that we did. It’s like the old saying goes… we cause our own suffering.

Psychologist Dr Albert Ellis (the founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy – the precursor to CBT) created the ABC model to help people understand the meaning of their reactions to adversity, stress or trauma: A is the adversity—the event or situation. B is the belief or thought—our explanation about why the event/situation happened. C is the consequent emotion and behaviour—the feelings and behaviours our belief causes.

A = Activating Event/Adversity;

Activating events are triggers that cause potential stress. There are different types of stressors; for example, most people would find life event stressors, such as the death of a family member, extremely difficult and stressful. Then there are ‘daily hassles’ which are more common stressors. Not everyone finds these daily hassles stressful because our individual beliefs, thoughts and perceptions regarding the daily hassles determine if the event is stressful for us or not. For example, if someone has the belief that hard work is rewarding and providing for oneself and one’s family is important and nourishing, then going to work each day is not so stressful. For those whose beliefs are that working is for suckers who are slaves to the government and who also think that paying taxes is wrong, then going to work on a daily basis would most likely be quite stressful.

B = Belief/Thought;

When we’re born, we come into this world as a clean slate but we are quickly indoctrinated with the views, beliefs, etc of our parents, families, friends, communities, religions, cultures, etc. As we grow older, we automatically begin using these beliefs as a template for interpreting ourselves, others and the world in general. The problem that we soon encounter in life though is that not everyone has the same template as we do. The aim of the ABC model is about shifting the focus away from external events and onto our internal processing of the event (i.e. our beliefs). Our interpretation of the event is a subconscious reaction which occurs automatically. Not only are we burden with indoctrinated beliefs, we are burdened by automatic beliefs which can show up in our minds unexpectedly and unannounced.

C = Consequent Emotion/Behaviour;

The final part of the A+B=C equation is Consequent Emotion/Behaviour. This refers to the feelings/behaviours that occur as a result of an individual’s beliefs and self-talk in response to the trigger. These feelings/behaviours might include stress, fear, worry, anxiety, frustration, anger, aggression, depression, irritability, avoidance, social withdrawal, etc. A never equals C: it’s a process. A + B = C. Here are some examples of the ABC framework applied in unhealthy and healthy forms.

Example 1; Unhealthy;

Activating Event = My partner left me. Belief = “I am such a useless person. No wonder no one wants to be around me. There is something wrong with me. People are always leaving me. I am destined to be lonely forever”. Consequence = Feels depressed. May become suicidal. Self-medicates with drugs and alcohol.

Example 1: Healthy;

Activating event = My partner left me. Belief = “Oh well I guess we were just not compatible. I know that I am lovable and that I am a good person. I am sad and unhappy now but I will get through this. I wonder what my friend is doing tonight? I might invite them over for dinner”. Consequence = Feels sad that the relationship has ended but continues to live and enjoy life knowing that the sadness and pain will eventually pass.

Example 2: Unhealthy;

Activating event = My boss fired me. Belief = “My boss is right to fire me. I am useless and incompetent. I never should have told him that I had a learning disorder. I am never going to get another job. My life sucks”. Consequence = Unmotivated to find more work. Feels depressed. May become suicidal. Self-medicates with drugs and alcohol.

Example 2: Healthy:

Activating event = My boss fired me. Belief = “My boss was aware from the start that I had a learning disorder. I always worked as hard as I could and I never missed a day off. Just because I was slower at learning things doesn’t give them grounds to fire me. I’m not going to let this experience prevent me from finding another job”. 

Consequence = Feels sad about losing the job. Is motivated to complete further training and look for more work. Feels happy and proud that they are self-sufficient and that their learning disorder doesn’t prevent them from living and loving life.