Cognitive Restructuring: Knowing Your ABCs

Most people don’t realize that their own thinking is a major cause of stress. They blame events (like a traffic jam or a lost file or an argument with their boss) not realizing that it’s that their thoughts about these events that is the true source of their distress.

Learn your ABCs

Cognitive Restructuring helps you control your thinking - so stressful events and circumstances don’t automatically lead to stress. Author and psychologist, Dr. Albert Ellis developed a simple way for you to remember this technique that’s as easy as A-B-C.

A stands for the Activating Event (AKA, the stressor, or the source of stress) It could be a flat tire, a jammed printer, or an argument with your spouse. B stands for your Beliefs. It’s what you think or believe when you get stressed: “Why does this stuff always happen to me?” “This is the worst possible thing that could have happened!” “He never comes home on time. She always gets to work late..” And C stand for the Consequence of A+B. It’s how the event, plus your thoughts about that event makes you feel inside. (Often the Consequence is feeling upset.) For example, if the activating event was: A traffic jam; and your belief was: this is going to take forever; Your consequence is probably going to be: frustration. A+B=C

Most people believe that A=C. That a traffic jam equals frustration and stress. They aren’t aware of the role their thoughts play in creating stress.

The beginnings of cognitive therapy

What Ellis discovered when he first started practicing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was that his patient’s thinking was often flawed, or as Ellis put it: irrational.

So why is a thought like: Why does this stuff always happen to me? irrational? We often feel singled out by stressful events and circumstances (like a flat tire) when in fact, these types of things happen to everyone. Here is another example: This is the worst possible thing that could have happened! This belief is irrational too. If it really was the worst possible thing that could have happened you wouldn’t be here thinking it. Another example is: He (or she’s) always coming home late. He (or she) doesn’t care about me! Could be true, but more often than not, this kind of thinking is based on a kernel of truth, but not the whole truth: Even if this spouse comes home late two nights a week, he (or she) is still coming home on time more often than he (or she) comes home late.

Most people aren’t aware of their negative self-talk

So why split hairs over how often a spouse comes home late? For the simple reason that these irrational (and exaggerated) thoughts make us miserable. And more often than not, our thinking in stressful situations is flawed. Exaggerating the circumstances only makes matters worse. And furthermore, you probably aren’t even aware of having these thoughts! Once you become aware of your exaggerated, irrational thinking, and see how easily you can change it, you’ll never experience a stressful event in the same way again.

Cognitive restructuring helps you take control of your thinking. It teaches you how to recognize when you are thinking irrationally. It teaches you how to dispute irrational thinking and as a result, magically dissolve much of the frustration and stress you experience in life.

Related Items

The Thinking Person's Stress Management Workbook
Change the way you think about stress.
Managing Stress DVD
Five techniques for tackling tension.
The ABCs of Cognitive Restructuring
20 handouts about thinking and stress.

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