ABC’s of changing your thoughts and feelings to change your behavior

Change negative thoughts through a three-step practice.

A cartoon of a person ruminating over thoughts in bed.
Photo: Microsoft stock image.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a widely used form of psychotherapy that helps individuals understand the connection between their thoughts and feelings, and how thoughts and feelings influence their behavior. CBT can effectively treat anxiety, depression, serious mental illness and a host of other mental health challenges.

One of the guiding principles of CBT is that, while we cannot control every aspect of the world around us, we can take control of how we interpret events and relate to experiences, situations and other peoples’ behavior in a way that does not lead to suffering for us.

Human beings are hardwired to focus more attention on, store deeper in the brain, and dwell much longer on negative thoughts than positive ones. This negativity bias helps our ability to scan and adapt to our environment in ways that help human survival. Herein lies the problem in modern life. Even if we are no longer as vulnerable to environmental elements, like saber-toothed tigers who want to eat us, we still have negativity bias that influences our thinking, feelings and behavior in everyday situations.

Negativity bias can lead to overthinking and rumination, especially in key areas of life such as how we perceive and relate to others, how we problem solve and decisions we make. Ultimately, this means that overthinking can be stressful and can end up negatively impacting social-emotional health leading to unsatisfying relationships, unhealthy coping, and mental health challenges.

CBT therapy and educational workshops like Michigan State University Extension’s Changing Negative Self Talk are popular because we could all use help in training our minds to focus on the relationship between our thoughts, feelings and responses. Positive, productive and constructive thoughts can manifest positive, productive and constructive behavior. Clinically speaking, this practice can be effective, goal specific, and its results easily measured with a wide array of mental health disorders including addiction, depression, anxiety and phobias.

"The ABC’s of CBT”

Below is a simple description of the ABC model for applying CBT concepts in everyday life. This can be practiced with or without participating in formal therapy. This ABC model can best be explained as, “I think, so I feel, and I do.” Here’s what ABC stands for:

  • A stands for "activating event." The actual event and one’s immediate interpretations of the event.
  • B stands for "beliefs about the event." This evaluation can be rational or irrational.
  • C stands for "consequences." How you feel and what you do or other thoughts

When a negative event happens, we have an opportunity to interpret it positively or negatively. The outcome can be a healthy or unhealthy emotion.

Here is an example of a negative perspective:

  • What is the activating event? Example: My co-worker comes to work one morning, passes my desk and does not speak to me or acknowledge me.
  • What is your belief about that event? What meaning do you give it? Example: I believe that my co-worker is being rude or is maybe upset with me about something that happened a couple of days ago.
  • What feelings do you have when you think that? Example: I feel resentful that my co-worker did not speak to me, and I fear that they may be holding critical judgments of me.

For comparison, here is an example of a positive perspective. At this point, you go back to number one, the activating event, which remains the same, then challenge the automatic thought that you had about the event:

  • Activating event remains the same. Example: My co-worker comes to work one morning, passes my desk, and does not speak to me or acknowledge me.
  • What else could that event mean? Identify other possible beliefs or explanations. Try to at least give a neutral explanation. Example: They (my co-worker) might just be having a rough morning because traffic was heavy on the way to work. For whatever reason, they were just too distracted to say good morning and meant no negative disregard toward me.
  • What feelings do you have when you think these alternatives are possible? Example: I feel reassured that they are not holding onto the event from the other day, and I feel emotionally safe regardless of their behavior.
  • How does your behavior change as your feelings change? Example: I will not waste a second of my time thinking about something that has nothing to do with me. I can focus my time, space and energy on the things I need to do for work.

This is a considerably basic form and description of CBT, and as with a more intensive form of the technique, it can only work when we notice that our thoughts are causing suffering. After noticing, we need to remain open to changing our thoughts and understanding and accepting that changing our thoughts can potentially change our lives for the better. Change is not easy, especially when we have been doing things a certain way for a long time, but it is possible with education, information, support, and practice of new skills. When it comes to mental health, small shifts can lead to great gains in overall well-being.

Michigan State University Extension offers programs and resources that support mental health and well-being, such as Stress Less with Mindfulness, Mental Health First Aid, Managing Farm Stress programs and RELAX: Alternatives to Anger. 

Did you find this article useful?