Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Albert Ellis, Cognitive Restructuring and Short-Circuiting Stress

by James Porter February 01, 2011

"Is this Jim Porter?" The voice on the other end of the phone was so raspy it was almost grating. And obviously this person was hard of hearing because - whoever it was - was basically yelling at me.

"Yes," I said, "This is Jim Porter," sounding annoyed, having no idea I was talking to one of the founders of cognitive therapy.

"This is Albert Ellis. I just saw your film Short Circuiting Stress. It was very good. Thank you for sending it to me."

"You're welcome," I said, pinching myself, not believing that when I'd told my office manager, Erica to send him a copy that he would ever actually look at it, let alone get back to me personally about it.

Dr. Albert Ellis, author of many books about cognitive restructuring.

"It was one of the best films I've seen on cognitive restructuring. I'm sending you a letter to that effect in the mail tomorrow." (See the Letter)

When I first started doing the research for this film, I was just trying to come up with an angle on stress management, that hadn't been done before. In a book called Is it Worth Dying For, there was a single page referring to the work of a Dr. Albert Ellis and an algebraic equation: A+B=C. Something about this little equation intrigued me.

At the time, I didn't have a clue what it really meant or what cognitive restructuring was all about or what a big influence Dr. Ellis had in creating this type of therapy. But the more I learned, the more enamored I became with Ellis's method. He had brilliantly boiled all stress down to three simple letters: A+B=C. The Activating event, plus your Beliefs equals the consequence.

I really studied it until I understood that equation backwards and forwards. And what I learned is a stressful event has three parts: a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning is the Activating event or A. It's anything that pushes your buttons: for example, an A could be a flat tire, a traffic jam, a lost file or an angry boss.

The middle is your thoughts or Beliefs about that event: for example a B could be any thought or belief like this is awful; this is terrible, this is going to take forever or I've got the world's worst boss.

The end of the sequence is your reaction, the Consequence of A+B: As the result of the activating event plus your thoughts about it you feel frustrated, angry, annoyed and/or stressed.

It was an elegant equation and from my perspective, a great way to analyze and teach exactly how a stressful event unfolds.

More importantly, it demonstrates that you can choose how YOU want to react. If you change your thinking at B, or challenge your beliefs about the situation, you can change the outcome of any stressful event. And that is the essence of cognitive restructuring. Changing (or restructuring) the way you view or perceive an event.

I must admit I was struck by the simplicity of it, so I decided I would make a film that blended this concept with scenes from the Frank Capra movie, It's a Wonderful Life.

There's one particular scene in that movie that I had always wanted to use in a training film. It's the scene where, after seeing what the world would have been like if he had never lived at all, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) comes home and kisses the faulty ball on the banister at the bottom of his front hall stairs. He came close to throwing that wooden ball through a window in a previous scene. But now he's kissing it!

The only thing that changed between the two scenes was B: his thoughts and beliefs. His A (he was about to be arrested for bank fraud) was exactly the same in both scenes. But in the second scene he has a new perspective. (That life is truly worth living despite the hardships.) "Well hello, Mr. Bank Examiner," George gleefully proclaims as he enters the front hall, "I'm going to jail!"

An advertisement for Ellis's Friday Night Live Therapy sessions.

After seeing Short Circuiting Stress, Dr. Ellis invited me to come into New York to meet with him. He must have been in his eighties at the time. And he was still doing his Friday night public therapy sessions at the Albert Ellis Institute (three blocks east of Central Park) where you could go, pay $5, and watch him analyze anyone who volunteered to get up from the audience. I still remember exactly what he said that night as he introduced himself to the adoring crowd of Cognitive Restructuring groupies, of which, I was now a part: "On Friday night I like to help all the poor citizens of New York, one crazy person at a time." It was meant to draw a laugh and it got a big one.

Later that night, I was invited up to his third floor apartment to talk about making a film. He was a lifelong diabetic so he had to eat a lot of small meals. As he munched on corn bread, he told me about another one of our training films that he had seen and liked, Laughing at Stress with Loretta LaRoche. I knew from working with her, that Loretta was a big fan of Albert Ellis and apparently the feeling was mutual.

Dr. Ellis marched to the beat of a different drummer, and, at the time I met him, had all the earmarks of being the classic curmudgeon: A little grumpy, a little hard of hearing, and very old. He wasn't afraid to say anything that crossed his mind. And being polite was not as important as being honest.

The Albert Ellis Institute. He lived on the top floor.

The next day I attended an all day workshop at the Institute on handling anger. The people at the front desk warned me NOT to be late: Dr. Ellis didn't take kindly to late-comers, they explained. And sure enough when a young man entered the room 15 minutes after the program started, Dr. Ellis barked out, "Sit down. Find a seat. You're in the way."

After that day, I read a lot of books by Dr. Ellis (there are over 60) and really tried to incorporate the concept of cognitive restructuring into many of our products. You'll see it in our 32 page workbook, The Thinking Person's Guide to Managing Stress, the trifold brochure: Practical Stress Management, the training kit The ABCs of Cognitive Restructuring and The Stress Management Journal. Even the videos, Balancing the Stress in Your Life, Laughing At Stress (With Loretta LaRoche) and Managing Stress have sections that are thoroughly influenced by the work of Albert Ellis.

Ellis died several years ago at the age of 95. We never did get around to making that film together which I will always regret. But I recently heard an amazing story about him from Jon Kabat Zinn (see my blog about going on retreat with Jon Kabat Zinn) that I suspect very few people know: A year or so before he died, Ellis was finishing a book about Buddhism (and mindfulness) and sent a pre-publication copy to Kabat-Zinn for review and comment. Kabat-Zinn replied that he thought the book wasn't up to the level of the other work Ellis had done over the years and advised him not to publish it.

When Ellis died a year later, Ellis's former partner Janet Wolfe, called Kabat-Zinn and asked him if he wanted to speak at Ellis's funeral. "Why me?" Kabat Zinn asked her, "I didn't even know the guy."

"You're the only person he ever listened to," Wolfe explained. "You told him not to publish that book on Buddhism and he never did."

James Porter
James Porter