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The ABC’s of CBT

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment for a wide variety of mental health challenges and is often considered a “gold standard” treatment for depression and anxiety.

As its name suggests, CBT works to systematically evaluate how our thoughts and behaviors work together to influence how we feel. By understanding what we are thinking and what we are doing in response to stress, we can begin to gain a sense of control and more mindfully and effectively implement our coping skills in the face of a wide variety of stressors. 

What are the ABC’s of CBT?

The “ABC’s” of CBT refers to a framework for understanding how our thoughts and behaviors work together to influence our feelings. Developed by Albert Ellis, a psychologist whose work heavily influences modern CBT practice, the ABC’s are considered a fundamental component of CBT.

ABC Explained

“A” stands for Activating events, situations that lead to intense negative emotions.

“B” stands for Beliefs, automatic thoughts that come in response to the activating event.

“C” stands for Consequences, emotions or behaviors that follow an activating event and is associated with our beliefs.

What does ABC look like in real life?

For example, an email from your boss asking to schedule a meeting may be an activating event. Your belief is, “My boss hates me, I know I’m getting fired,” and the consequences might be that you feel worried and depressed, which leads to poor sleep and feeling sluggish at work the following day.

Alternatively, the same activating event might lead another person to think, “Maybe my boss would like to discuss the new project I’ve been working on, I’m glad she’s interested hearing about it.” And the resulting consequence might be that this person would then feel pleased and hopeful, and therefore sleep well and have a relaxed body. In this example, the same activating event can result in different beliefs and ultimately different consequences/outcomes.

This simple example can illustrate how powerful it can be to understand how the ABC’s work in our lives.

How Can CBT Help Me?

CBT can help to reduce stress and improve mood in many different situations. In working with my clients, I have found that even taking the first steps to evaluating our ABC’s can work to reduce stress.

Taking this first step in CBT can help us psychologically organize situations that can often feel confusing or overwhelming. Becoming aware of our ABC’s can help us be more mindful of what we are thinking and bring a better sense of balance when coping with various challenges.

The goal is not to define our thoughts as “wrong or right,” but rather to figure out the interplay between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to help us understand where we might make a change.

Evaluating our ABC’s can be challenging to do on our own, because it can be extremely hard to see the links that contribute to our distress, especially when we feel overwhelmed or tired.

Psychotherapists trained in CBT are skilled in working with clients to help them understand their unique set of ABC’s and develop skills to cope effectively based on such analyses. Learning how to evaluate our ABC’s can be the first step towards empowering ourselves to make effective and lasting changes in many areas of our lives.

If you wish to get more information on our CBT services at Coronado Psych, please do not hesitate to contact us at 619-354-4027,, or click here to schedule an initial consultation.

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