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ABC Model of CBT

One of the basic ideas of CBT therapy is the ABC model. At the time he devised it, Albert Ellis’s model was ground-breaking stuff! Prior to this, people believed that their emotions were caused by the things that happened to them. Ellis instead thought that our emotions are caused by how we interpret what happens to us. So here’s the model:


A= activating events B= beliefs C= consequences

Let’s look at each component in more depth.

Activating Events

For the purposes of this discussion, think of activating events as things that happen to you in your life. So, for example, you must take a test, you get in a car accident or walk into a crowded room. All these events might be followed by some sort of emotional response. An activating event can be something really huge, but it can also be a small thing like someone looking at you with a strange expression on their face.


This is what we think after we have processed the activating event. I tend to use the word thoughts instead of beliefs in my work with people, but it is the same thing essentially. And the thoughts or beliefs that follow any given activating event will differ from person to person depending on our past experiences and what we have learned through our life. So even though you and I might be sitting right next to each other and undergo the exact same event, our beliefs might be completely different depending on what things we have learned and experienced in our past.


These are our emotional responses to the things that occur in our lives, whether we are angry, happy, scared, surprised, or whatever emotion, these are all considered the consequences.

Most consequences occur without us really paying any attention to them, which is fine. But if you are frequently experiencing an emotion such as anger or anxiety, it can cause disruption in your life and in your relationships and you may want to make some changes.

An Example

Maybe an example would be helpful at this point. One that I use often with folks in my practice is you are leaving work (or school) late one night, and you notice that someone is walking towards you out of the dark. This is the activating event. You then think to yourself, “Wow! How sweet of my boyfriend to come and pick me up at work!”. This is the belief. Then, as a result of this belief, you might experience feelings such as warmth, happiness, joy, contentment, etc. These feelings are considered the consequence.

Why this is Important

If the above example happened and you were left feeling happy, you wouldn’t think this is a problem at all, so why are we even talking about it? Well, often our beliefs are what is known in CBT as “cognitive distortions” or “irrational beliefs”. These are beliefs that we habitually have which are based on faulty assumptions and cause us to have uncomfortable or destructive consequences or feelings. In the example above, if instead of thinking your boyfriend was coming to pick you up, you think, “OMG, who is that coming there? Is that someone coming to attack me? Do they have a weapon? I think I’m going to die!”. Thinking something like this can be very upsetting and can cause you to have anxiety, fear, and maybe even terror. These feelings could lead to you not wanting to go to work anymore and can develop into an anxiety disorder if you repeatedly experience them. In instances like this, it is helpful to you to address these distortions which we do through reframing.

If you want to learn more about cognitive distortions, you can find more in-depth information here at a previous blog post.

Practice Makes All the Difference

So, this is the basic idea of the ABC theory of CBT therapy. It all sounds very simple and straightforward, doesn’t it? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if life were really this simple? Unfortunately, distortions tend to be fairly well ingrained in our minds and can take some time to reframe to the point where they cause us only minimal discomfort. One of the cons of CBT is that you will need to do daily homework assignments to get the results you want. Think of your thinking and the distortions as a bad habit that you want to break- you wouldn’t expect to be able to quit a long-term habit with no effort, would you? The same is true of cognitive distortions. Chances are you have been practicing them for a really long time and so it will take you some time and effort to confront and overcome them.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully, this blog gives you a bit more information about CBT treatment and the philosophy behind it. If you are interested in learning more or would like to talk with me further about starting therapy, please follow the link! I’d love to hear from you.



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