How the ABC Model Works in Psychotherapy

The ABC (antecedents, behavior, consequences) model is a main component of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It is based on the idea that emotions and behaviors are not determined by external events but by our beliefs about them.

CBT is a popular mental health treatment that involves recognizing and examining problematic thought patterns and behaviors and adjusting them to be healthier and more productive. It is used to treat depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and more.

Read on to learn more about the applications of the ABC model in cognitive behavioral therapy.

A woman gestures with her hands while talking to her therapist.

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Definition of the ABC Model

The ABC model, also sometimes considered the ABCDE model, is a simplified framework used in REBT to change irrational beliefs into rational ones, thus prompting healthier reactions to situations.

The idea behind the ABC model is that a person doesn't necessarily have to change their environment to feel better; instead, they can acknowledge and change their reactions to their environment.

Antecedents

The "A" in the ABC model stands for antecedents. This is an event that prompts the start of the reaction process. It can be a major event, but often it's much simpler, like someone speaking to you rudely.

Beliefs

The "B" stands for beliefs. This is where the work in the ABC model is performed and what determines the outcome of the event.

In the ABC model, beliefs are separated into two categories, as follows:

Irrational Beliefs

  • Rigid, extreme, and illogical
  • Primary belief is "demandingness" (requires help or attention)
  • Secondary beliefs are "awfulizing" (assuming bad or negative things will happen), low frustration tolerance, self-depreciation

Examples of irrational beliefs include:

  • "Susan was rude to me this morning, so she must hate me."
  • "Susan was rude to me, so I must be an unlikable person."
  • "Susan was rude to me. She is a terrible person."

Rational Beliefs

  • Flexible, nonextreme, and logical
  • Primary belief is preferences
  • Secondary beliefs include "anti-awfulizing", high frustration tolerance, self-acceptance, and acceptance of others

Examples of rational beliefs might include:

  • "Susan was rude to me. She must be having a bad day."
  • "Susan was rude to me this morning. Maybe she was in rush or running late and didn't have time for a chat."

Rational, healthy, and adaptive emotions are not always positive emotions. Some negative emotions are necessary, such as:

  • Concern
  • Annoyance
  • Sadness
  • Disappointment
  • Regret/remorse

The goal of ABC is not to banish negative emotions, but rather to view them in a rational, healthy manner.

Examples of Belief Thinking

For example, concern, which is based on a rational belief, might appear as, "I'm not sure if I studied enough for this test, and it's possible I will get a bad grade. If this happens, it would be disappointing, but I can handle it."

In contrast, anxiety, which is based on an irrational belief, might appear as, "I might fail this test, and if I do, it would be catastrophic."

Consequences

"C" stands for consequences. This is how you feel or what you do in response to the antecedent event.

In the ABC model, consequences are determined by your beliefs in the "B" step. Using the example above, if you believe Susan was rude because of something negative in her own life, your behavior may be to not internalize it and give Susan some space.

The ABCDE Model

The ABC model often extends to an ABCDE model, with "D" standing for "disputation of beliefs," and "E" standing for a "new effect." These mean learning to dispute irrational and unhealthy beliefs when they arise to change the outcome to a positive one.

How the ABC Model Works

CBT helps people understand how their thoughts and feelings influence their behavior. ABC is a tool used in CBT to highlight this connection.

This strategy helps people identify unhealthy thoughts and emotions and learn to change them into more constructive ones. It can help simplify an otherwise complex concept and allow people to examine their personal reactions to specific situations.

Benefits of the ABC Model

The effectiveness of the ABC model has been demonstrated widely in studies. It has been shown to help with conditions and symptoms such as:

The ABC model has also been shown to facilitate therapy by helping people understand the antecedents (or triggers) of their emotions and behaviors, and to realize that they cannot always control what happens, but they can control how they respond.

One of the biggest benefits of the ABC model is its simplicity. It can be implemented with minimal instruction and can even be posted as a reminder or guide in schools or workplaces.

What to Expect From the ABC Model

The ABC model is used in several therapeutic formats, with people of different backgrounds, in different settings, and for a wide variety of conditions and purposes. How ABC will be applied depends on these factors and more.

Generally, the ABC model will involve answering questions that relate to each stage to better understand your triggers, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors.

When to Use the ABC Model

The ABC model is typically used in CBT, particularly in REBT. It can treat a wide variety of mental health conditions and symptoms.

How to Find a Therapist

The American Psychological Association has an online search tool to help you find a psychologist in your area.

For other mental health resources, you can check our National Helpline Database.

Summary

The ABC model is a tool used in cognitive behavioral therapy to recognize irrational events and beliefs. It stands for antecedents, beliefs, and consequences. The goal of the ABC model is to learn to use rational thinking to respond to situations in a healthy way. It is effective in treating depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, and more.

A Word From Verywell

Even if you do not have a mental health condition, the ABC model can be beneficial in helping you learn more about how you respond to situations and how to better handle them. If you are living with a mental health illness and think the ABC model may help you, talk to your healthcare provider or mental health provider about incorporating it into your treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much does therapy cost?

    The cost of therapy can vary widely and depend on many factors, including insurance. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers information on how to access treatments at varying cost levels.

  • What do you talk about in therapy?

    You can talk about anything you want to in therapy. You may discuss your concerns, symptoms, goals, past and present experiences, and exercises to help you live with your condition. Whatever is helpful to you.

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