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Know your A-B-C's

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy gives tools for identifying and challenging the way we think. One of the simple ways to remember the skill is to remember your ABC's.


A: Activating Event

This is the trigger to whatever it is that you are thinking and feeling. It can be a myriad of things. Activating events can be past, present or future. They can be real or imagined. They can be things that have happened or things that haven't happened that we wanted to have happen.


Being aware and noticing the patterns can be helpful in challenging and it preparing for those events. If I know that I become anxious every time I visit a new doctor, I can prepare mentally ahead of time to use skills to help me manage that situation. Avoiding activating events can be helpful in the short term but can become problematic in the long term. If school is my activating event, so I avoid it and fall behind, I'm actually only making things worse!


B: Belief

This is the one that can be the most challenging to figure out and therefore, it is often the one that people overlook. This is where you identify your thoughts, your self-talk, your negative narrative, your What are the thoughts triggered by the activating event? What am I thinking about the situation, about me, about the other person, about the world?


If I get a "C" on a test I can be overjoyed because my thought is "I nailed it! This is way better than I expected!" or I can be distraught because my narrative is "I am an "A" student and this in completely unacceptable". The activating event is the same, it's the belief that changes the outcome.


C: Consequences

The consequences are the emotional and behavioral outcomes from our belief's, self-talk, and negative narratives. They can be positive or negative consequences. This is where we feel anger, sadness, hurt, shame, joy, contentment, pleasure and much more. This is also where we find ourselves lashing out, turning to addictive substances/behaviors, or other maladaptive behaviors.


If I have avoided (Belief/Behavior) school (Activating Event) then my immediate consequence is relief, until I realize I'm further behind, which brings up panic and I'm right back in the A-B-C cycle. Although now my avoidance of school is the activating event.


Steps D and E are where we start to do things differently to create a change in our thinking and lives.


D: Dispute

Disputing looks like identifying and challenging the beliefs and thinking errors. We work to find more rational, fact based statements, we take accountability, we look at it from another perspective, we offer ourselves compassion, we forgive, we take a non-judgmental stance, we find the tool that applies in the situation. There are many ways of disputing the negative narrative which we will explore in the future.


E: Effects of Dispute: New Outcome

In this step we identify how our dispute tools are working. How do we feel now? What behaviors have we chosen instead? Evaluate the process. What worked? What would help things go better next time? Don't give up if things are only a fraction better. This takes practice. Notice the improvement rather than the struggle.


The ABC's of cognitive behavioral therapy can be a useful tool to help us shift our emotions. Being able to identify and handle our emotions appropriately are skills that we learn over time and it takes time. Over time as your skill grows it will be easier, and faster. And the thoughts will decrease in frequency, intensity and duration. But don't be surprised if they are still hanging around!


Here's something to try: Find a positive event and walk it through the ABC's. Post the ABC's where you can see it regularly. Once a day walk through the steps with something that happened the day before. Watch a dramatic TV/Movie and catch the cognitive distortions that you see. Ask your family members to point out when you are making negative statements about yourself. When you mood shifts ask "What just happened?" and "What am I thinking about?" Keep a ABC notebook.


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