Psychotherapists have many tools at their disposal for helping clients overcome stress and related issues. One of these tools is called rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT), which used to be known as rational-emotive therapy (RET). This system of therapy was pioneered by Dr. Albert Ellis decades ago, and today its principles and techniques are employed in the most mature system known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Dr. Ellis was a firm believer in the idea that an individual could help himself or herself overcome the destructive thinking tendencies that directly determine emotional responses such as stress. He created what is now known as the ABC model of psychotherapy.
A stands for Activating Event and is the external situation or event that is wrongly believed to cause C, the emotional Consequence. What stands between A and C, however, is B, a belief. This belief can be either rational or irrational, and Dr. Ellis believed that all negative emotional states are the result of irrational beliefs at point B.
The ABC model of psychotherapy could rightly be called the ABCDE model of psychotherapy since the model has two additional components, D and E. D stands for Disputation and refers to a conscious effort on the part of the individual to challenge and uproot the irrational beliefs at B that are causing the negative emotional consequences at C. This disputation subjects the irrational, stress-causing beliefs to a scientific, logical, empirical, rational method of questioning.
If the individual succeeds in recognizing and uprooting the irrational beliefs that are causing his or her current state of distress, the result is E, the Effect. E is ideally cognitive, emotional, and behavioral — cognitive in the sense that an irrational belief is replaced by a rational belief; emotional in the sense that a negative emotion such as stress is replaced either by a positive emotion or by a milder negative emotion that is more realistic; and behavioral in the sense that the individual will not respond to similar events in future with similar irrational beliefs.
There are various subtleties that we have overlooked for the sake of simplicity. One of these subtleties involves the vicious cycle that can result when irrational beliefs and negative emotional states have an influence on behavior and perception, leading to all sorts of self-fulfilling prophecies. In fact, perceptions, cognitions, emotions, and behaviors are highly interrelated. A simple demonstration of this fact can be observed if you try to be sad while smiling, or downbeat while walking at a fast pace with your head up high and your chest out.
An example will help tie the whole process together and illustrate how the ABCDE model of psychotherapy can be used to deal with stress and other negative emotions.
Let us suppose that you are running late for work and that you are feeling stressed out about the situation. The ABCDE breaks down as follows:
A – the Activating Event is that you are running late for work.
B – the irrational Belief we will examine below.
C – the emotional Consequence of B is that you are feeling stressed and highly
Let us now move to Disputation. You could ask yourself “What is the irrational belief that is making me feel this way?” Quite likely, the belief will be along the lines that you absolutely must be punctual at all times and that it is catastrophic when you are late. You could then ask yourself “Why is it catastrophic if I am late?” “Because,” you may answer, “I could get fired.” If you wanted to, you could keep examining this and ask yourself what would be catastrophic about being fired, and you could end up surprising yourself with where such persistent questioning can take you.
But let us assume that being fired would indeed be the end of the world. You could still dispute the idea that you would be fired for being late. After all, doubtless, you have seen other coworkers arrive late on occasion with total impunity. Maybe even the boss is late from time to time.
Eventually, you may come to the realization that being late is nothing worth stressing out over, and this rational realization would be accompanied by a corresponding change in an emotional state. You could take charge of your behavior by devising ways to ensure that you arrive early to work the vast majority of the time. You would now be at E, the Effect.