Albert Ellis’s ABC Model is a significant part of the form of therapy that he developed, known as Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).
REBT served as a sort of precursor to the widely known and applied Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and the ABC Model is still commonly used as a treatment in CBT interventions.
This article will cover what the ABC Model is, how it and REBT relate to CBT, and finally, how the ABC Model works to target dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs.
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A Brief History on CBT & REBT
Modern CBT has its direct roots in Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy (CT), which he developed when he decided that contemporary treatments for depression focused too much on past events rather than current beliefs (such as the belief that one is not good enough or not worthy of love and respect.) (Beck, 2011).
Beck’s CT has its own roots, though, and Albert Ellis’s REBT is one of those roots. Specifically, REBT is “the original form and one of the main pillars of cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT)” (David et al., 2018).
In other words, REBT is both a precursor to and a form of CBT; it is still used today as a standalone form of therapy in some cases. The main thing that sets REBT and CBT apart from preceding cognitive therapies is that REBT and CBT both target beliefs as a fundamental course of treatment.
For the purposes of this article, we can consider REBT to be a subset of CBT, and we can consider the ABC Model to be a core component of many treatment plans in both REBT and CBT.
What Is The ABC Model?
The basic idea behind the ABC model is that “external events (A) do not cause emotions (C), but beliefs (B) and, in particular, irrational beliefs (IB) do” (Sarracino et al., 2017).
Another way to think about it is that “our emotions and behaviors (C: Consequences) are not directly determined by life events (A: Activating Events), but rather by the way these events are cognitively processed and evaluated (B: Beliefs)” (Oltean et al., 2017).
Further, the model states that it’s not a simple matter of an unchangeable process in which events lead to beliefs that result in consequences; the type of belief matters, and we have the power to change our beliefs. REBT divides beliefs into “rational” and “irrational” beliefs. The goal when using the ABC model in treatment is to help the client accept the rational beliefs and dispute the irrational beliefs.
This disputation process is what results in the model often being referred to as the “ABCDE” Model. In this updated model, the D stands for the Disputation of Beliefs and E stands for the new Effect, or the result of holding healthier beliefs (Jorn, 2016).
Disputation is not an original part of the ABC Model, as it happens outside of the “ABC” part (such as in the case of disputing an irrational belief to turn it into a rational belief), and the new Effect is another subsequent factor: the result of that disputation.
Calling it the “ABCDE” Model instead of the “ABC” Model simply makes these two steps more explicit, but they are present regardless of what one calls it.
In these models, this is what a typical series of thoughts might look like:
- A: Activating Event (something happens to or around someone)
- B: Belief (the event causes someone to have a belief, either rational or irrational)
- C: Consequence (the belief leads to a consequence, with rational beliefs leading to healthy consequences and irrational beliefs leading to unhealthy consequences)
- D: Disputation (if one has held an irrational belief which has caused unhealthy consequences, they must dispute that belief and turn it into a rational belief)
- E: New Effect (the disputation has turned the irrational belief into a rational belief, and the person now has healthier consequences of their belief as a result)
How To Treat Cognitive Distortions & Irrational Beliefs
When it comes to applying the ABC Model (whether that’s in CBT, REBT, or any other form of therapy or coaching):
A key element is helping clients see the connection between an event that may serve as a trigger, and how irrational evaluations may cause emotional and/or behavioral consequences that often in turn lead to increased distress or conflict.
(Malkinson & Brask—Rustad, 2013)
This is the main idea behind the ABC Model and a popular notion in most forms of therapy; one does not necessarily have to change their environment to become happier and healthier, they simply have to recognize and change their reactions to their environment. This takes a little self-awareness, but that’s something we are all able to do with a bit of effort.
This theory is supported by the fact that three 45-minute learning sessions about the ABC Model have been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as reducing dysfunctional thinking while increasing self-esteem and feelings of hope (Saelid & Nordahl, 2017).
This finding is even more impressive with the added note that 90% of the participants in this study “reported not having had any previous knowledge of the links between thoughts, feelings, and behavior.” Simply becoming more aware of the relationship between them made it a powerful tool!
In fact, the ABC Model partially works by making clear this connection between their beliefs and their emotions, which helps people see that the events around them do not need to dictate their emotions.
The ABC Model has not only been successful in treating anxiety, depressive symptoms, and self-esteem issues; it has been shown to target anger issues as well effectively (Fuller et al., 2010). This treatment is especially promising because participants in the study were able to deal with their anger while confronting potential anger triggers, rather than by merely avoiding anger triggers.
After all, there are some anger triggers we simply can’t avoid if we want to live a full, meaningful life–things like traffic, confrontations with people we love, etc.
In cases of unhealthy anger and other instances of unhealthy negative emotions, the key thing to understand is the difference between rational and irrational beliefs (Ziegler & Smith, 2004). However, in certain situations, the ABC Model cannot merely be deployed as-is.
In mild situations, the ABC Model works by turning irrational beliefs about activating events into rational beliefs, which in turn leads to better consequences and emotions. In some cases, such as grief, it is not about turning irrational beliefs into rational beliefs, but it is instead about legitimizing, validating, and normalizing the beliefs that are present.
For example, treating someone who is grieving, such as someone in mourning from losing a child, requires a modification. This is because, in the case of grief, “‘logical’ disputation is not useful, but instead, legitimizing and normalizing is used: losing a child is in and by itself not logical” (Malkinson & Brask-Rustad, 2013).
Grief is not an emotion that heeds logic, and it should not be attacked with the same vigor with which things like anger and negative self-talk can be confronted. In such cases, the ABC model should be applied with care, and only after validating the difficult emotions the client is facing.
In less acute cases, where the issues are more garden-variety irrational beliefs, this model has great success. Even the most rational and reasonable among us have struggled with irrational beliefs, it’s simply a matter of degree.
These irrational beliefs must be examined and confronted if the client is to experience relief from them, and that is what the ABC model does. There are many types of irrational beliefs–known formally as “cognitive distortions”–that have been identified, and all can benefit from this treatment.
The image below gives a short demonstration on the ABC model in action. In this case, the negative event is that a student doesn’t get selected for choir after her audition. The event (A) leads to this thought: “I have a terrible voice. I’m never going to be any good at singing.” This is the belief (B), which results in the consequences (C): the student is sad about her singing and gives up practicing instead of continuing to work on it.
Let’s expand on this idea with an example of the ABC model in action during treatment for a cognitive distortion. Imagine a counselor is working with a woman who suffers from black-and-white thinking; when she makes a mistake, she thinks to herself, “I’m such a failure. I’m not good at anything.”
The counselor informs her about the ABC model and walks her through how to tackle it.
Unexamined, her cognitive distortion plays out like this:
A – Activating Event – the client makes a mistake.
B – Belief – the client has a thought that says she is a failure and that she is not good at anything. She accepts it uncritically.
C – Consequence – the client feels awful about her mistake and about herself in general, leading to depressive symptoms and making it tough for her to try again.
With her counselor’s help, the woman realizes that she is not a helpless victim to this process; she can do something about the “B” part of the model. She does not need to accept the thought as true, she can decide that it’s just a thought and treat it as such.
Her new process looks like this:
A – Activating Event – the client makes a mistake.
B – Belief – the client has a thought that says she is a failure and that she is not good at anything.
C – Consequence – the client feels awful about her mistake and about herself in general, but she remembers that she can question the cognitive distortion.
D – Disputation – she questions the thought. She tells herself that everyone makes mistakes and that one mistake does not mean she is worthless or that she is not good at anything.
E – New Effect – the client accepts that we all make mistakes and replace the negative thoughts with this positive thought. She commits to learning from her mistake and trying again in the future.
You can see the important work happening in D (Disputation). The client has realized that her thoughts are simply thoughts, they do not determine who she is. She takes control by rejecting the thought and purposely replacing it with a more realistic and more positive thought.
5 ABC Model Worksheets (PDF)
This extremely short worksheet simply lists the five steps of the ABC model in descending order.
It starts with the Activating Event — something happens to you or in the environment around you — where you have space to write down your activating event.
Next is Beliefs — you have a belief of interpretation regarding the activating event — followed by space for you to identify your own belief or interpretation that you would like to change.
The third step is Consequences, described as “Your belief has consequences than include feelings and behaviors.” Here you can write down what happens to you as a result of the belief you identified.
Next, the worksheet describes Disputations of Beliefs: “Challenge your beliefs to create new consequences.” This is where you look critically at the belief you wrote down and see whether it’s accurate and helpful. If it is not accurate, not helpful, or neither accurate nor helpful, this is your opportunity to craft a new belief.
Finally, the worksheet ends with Effective New Beliefs: “Adoption and implementation of new adaptive beliefs.” This is where you have a chance to create new, more helpful beliefs and think about how you are going to incorporate them. It might help to write out a commitment to choosing one of your new beliefs the next time a specific activating event happens.
This worksheet does not offer too much explanation but could be a good resource to hand out in an office or classroom when you have time to walk your student or client through it.
Understanding our Response to Stress and Adversity Handout
This three-page informational handout, which is part of a more extensive resource created by Dartmouth College, is a great standalone way to learn about the ABC Model. The worksheet starts with a very relatable scenario (being stuck in traffic) and discusses why we have different responses to stress. It clearly and briefly explains what the ABC Model is, provides an example, and describes how to use it effectively.
This is a good option for someone looking to quickly learn about the ABC Model and how to use for themselves or to give their clients to take home.
ABC Problem Solving Worksheet
This worksheet serves as a prompt to help someone work through the ABC Model in the moment when they are experiencing a challenging belief and difficult consequences.
It’s a detailed worksheet to walk through each step, which is great if you don’t have time to explain everything in a session or if your client isn’t big on writing down notes. It also changes the C and the B, which can be an exciting way to look at the model. We typically notice the consequences before the beliefs so that this format can be more intuitive to people new to the ABC model.
There are several questions for each step, including:
- Activating Event
- What is the Activating event?
- What has happened?
- What did I do?
- What did others do?
- What idea occurred to me?
- What emotions was I feeling?
- Am I feeling anger, depression, anxiety, frustration, self-pity, etc.?
- Am I behaving in a way that doesn’t work for me (drinking, attacking, moping, etc.)?
- Beliefs (Dysfunctional)
- What do I believe about the Activating event?
- Which of my beliefs are my helpful/self-enhancing beliefs, and which are my dysfunctional/self-defeating beliefs?
- What is the evidence that my belief is true?
- In what ways is my belief helpful or unhelpful?
- What helpful/self-enhancing belief can I use to replace each self-defeating or dysfunctional belief?
- Effective New Belief and Emotional Consequence
- What helpful/self-enhancing new belief can I use to replace each self-defeating or dysfunctional belief?
- What are my new feelings?
This would be a great resource to hang in a classroom or office as a reminder of the connection between beliefs and emotions. This worksheet is useful for people brand new to cognitive therapy or cognitive distortions because it does not require any prior knowledge about the ABC Model to use it successfully.
CBT Exercise – The ABCD Method
This exercise is similar to the above worksheet, as it also walks one through the ABC Model whenever one may need it. It may be more appropriate for adults; however, while the preceding worksheet may be more suitable for younger people (only because it is more colorful and includes more specific prompts), this worksheet breaks it down in a slightly different way:
- Activating Event – What happened? What’s stressing me out?
- Belief – What is my negative self-talk? What distorted or irrational thinking style am I using? What negative belief am I clinging to? What interpretations am I making?
- Consequence – What am I feeling? What is my behavior as a result of my beliefs?
- Dispute – Counter-thought. What realistic and grounding statement can I use instead? Is there an alternative way of thinking here that is reality-based?
For each section, there are multiple spaces to write about what happened, what you’re thinking, what the consequences are, and what better alternative thoughts would be.
This worksheet can also help regardless of one’s prior knowledge of the ABC Model.
ABC Functional Analysis Worksheet
This final worksheet presents an alternative version of the ABC Model that draws on similar cause-and-effect processes. The difference is that this worksheet does so at the level of one’s behaviors, thereby serving as a useful supplement to the worksheets above, which focus on cognitions and emotions.
If your clients find mapping the links between activating events and beliefs challenging to begin with, starting at the level of their behaviors using this worksheet may serve as a useful stepping stone to exploring self-defeating beliefs and emotional consequences.
This exercise may also be useful if your client’s motivation for engaging your services involves addressing specific problematic behaviors.
The worksheet itself comprises three columns to be filled in. These columns are labeled as follows:
- (A)ntecedents – What factors preceded the problematic behavior?
- (B)ehavior – What is the problematic behavior?
- (C)onsequences – What was the outcome of the problematic behavior?
It is recommended that you begin the worksheet at the ‘Behavior’ column, then work to assess the antecedents and consequences in turn.
A Take-Home Message
The main takeaway from the ABC Model is that while environmental factors can undoubtedly harm our lives, we do have some control over how we react and respond to those factors. For the most part, the more positively we respond, the more positive our outcomes will be.
This does not mean that no harm can come to someone with a positive attitude, but it does mean that a positive attitude can get someone through rough times quicker and more effectively. Having a positive attitude also does not cost anything, so it cannot hurt to try to keep a positive outlook.
In the true spirit of positive psychology, we would all be better off if we remembered the principles of the ABC Model. In many situations, we may not be able to change the environmental factors (or Activating Events) that occur in our daily lives; however, we can keep in mind the immense power of our own beliefs in shaping our everyday experiences.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our 3 Positive CBT Exercises for free.
- Beck, JS (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.), New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
- David, D., Cotet, C., Matu, S., Mogoase, C., Stefan, S. (2018). 50 years of rational-emotive and cognitive-behavioral therapy: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74(3), 304-318.
- Ellis, A. (2000). Can rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) be effectively used with people who have devout beliefs in God and religion? Professional Psychology-Research and Practice, 31(1), 29-33.
- Fuller, J.R., DiGiuseppe, R., O’Leary, S., Fountain, T., Lang, C. (2010). An Open Trial of a Comprehensive Anger Treatment Program on an Outpatient Sample. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 38(4), 485-490.
- Jorn, A. (2016). Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/rational-emotive-behavior-therapy/
- Malkinson, R., Brask-Rustad, T. (2013). Cognitive Behavior Couple Therapy-REBT Model for Traumatic Bereavement. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 31(2), 114-125.
- Oltean, H.R., Hyland, P., Vallieres, F., David, D.O. (2017). An Empirical Assessment of REBT Models of Psychopathology and Psychological Health in the Prediction of Anxiety and Depression Symptoms. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 45(6), 600-615.
- Saelid, G.A., Nordahl, H.M. (2017). Rational emotive behavior therapy in high schools to educate in mental health and empower youth health. A randomized controlled study of a brief intervention. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 46(3), 196-210.
- Sarracino, D., Dimaggio, G., Ibrahim, R., Popolo, R., Sassaroli, S., Ruggiero, G.M. (2017). When REBT Goes Difficult: Applying ABC-DEF to Personality Disorders. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 35(3), 278-295.
- Ziegler, D.J., Smith, P.N. (2004). Anger and the ABC model underlying Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy. Psychological Reports, 94(3), 1009-1014.