This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 13 table of contents.

The A-B-C-D-E Mnemonic

Ellis used an "ABCDE" mnemonic or memory system to teach the basics of rational-emotive behavior therapy. Here are the five elements:

A = Activating event

B = Belief system

C = Emotional Consequences of A and B

D = Disputing irrational thoughts and beliefs.

E = Cognitive and Emotional effects of revised beliefs

A is the activating event—the event that triggers stress or worry. It might be a crisis in a personal relationship, a speech to be given, chronic lack of confidence, job dissatisfaction, or sexual problems...anything that sends a person to a counselor. Like Rogers, Ellis was willing to tackle any problem.

What are the elements of the ABCDE mnemonic?

B stands for "belief system"—the cognitive component in a person's reaction to events. Ellis found that people often state beliefs that are counterproductive and reduce clear thinking. For example, a man whose wife is leaving him might comment, "This is the end of the world for me; I'll never find somebody who matters as much to me as Mabel." Ellis would challenge this belief directly. "Is it really the end of the world? Do you mean you're going to die tomorrow, if she leaves you? Have you gotten to know all the women in the world, so you know that you can't love any of them?"

C stands for consequences of irrational beliefs. Irrational thoughts produce bad consequences. They can be self-fulfilling prophecies. . For example, if you expect to feel nervous and do poorly, you are setting yourself up to feel nervous and do poorly. Some people repeat negative thoughts again and again. This repetitious thinking is called rumination and it is a bit like self-programming. A person who is constantly thinking, "This is horrible!" (or some other irrational idea) may stay in a bad mood because of the constant negative self-coaching. Replacing irrational thoughts and fears with a calmer, more reasonable assessment can improve a person's mood and lead to more adaptive behavior that addresses a problem rationally.

In what sense was Ellis willing to be "therapeutically obnoxious"?

D stands for disputing irrational beliefs. Ellis's treatment consists of challenging (disputing) a client's irrational beliefs as directly as possible. Transcripts of REBT sessions show Ellis in his prime was willing to be therapeutically obnoxious. He cussed, interrupted, shouted, and otherwise drew attention to irrationalities. However, this is not necessarily part of REBT therapy. The important thing is to replace negative, unrealistic thinking with a more realistic and adaptive appraisal of problem situations.

E stands for the effects of changing one's interpretation of a situation. If REBT is effective, a person loses their symptoms of anxiety or distress and sees a situation differently (something other therapists call cognitive restructuring). Ideally the client now takes practical action to solve the problem or has a less troublesome reaction to the situation.

How is REBT a semantic therapy?

In a 1975 revision of his classic A Guide to Rational Living, titled A New Guide to Rational Living, Ellis commented that REBT—then called Rational Emotive Therapy or RET—was a semantic therapy. Semantics is the science of word meanings. RET concentrated on words: their utterance, their meanings, and their effects on emotions and behavior.

Uniquely...unlike lower animals, people tell themselves various sane and crazy things. Their beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and philosophies largely (though hardly exclusively) take the form of internalized sentences or self-talk. (p.x)

Perhaps because of his attention to semantics, Ellis decided to rename his therapy in the 1980s. He inserted the word behavior into the title. This makes sense, because speech is a behavior, and RET (now REBT) was aimed at modifying self-talk. It is also a cognitive therapy, because it aims to change the way people think and reason about the world. Therapies that resemble Ellis's are now called cognitive behavior therapies. A prominent example is Beck's therapy for depression (discussed later in this chapter). It called itself a cognitive behavior therapy from the first, but transcripts from one of Beck's sessions could easily be mistaken for transcripts of a skilled (and non-obnoxious) REBT counselor.

REBT is founded on the insight that beliefs expressed through self-talk can be rational or irrational. A rational belief is one that can be defended as realistic, reflecting genuine real-world events. An irrational belief is usually not accurate if taken literally. It is really a way of expressing emotion, not a way of accurately representing the world. When a person says, "I will die if I have to give that speech tomorrow," that person does not really believe his or her life will end tomorrow. Such an expression is a way of saying, "I am afraid. I fear I will do poorly."

How are rational ideas distinguished from irrational ideas?

REBT aims to replace troublesome "irrational" self-talk with more realistic and adaptive self-talk. A statement like "I fear I will do poorly" can be acknowledged as true, by the therapist, and supplemented with a statement like, "But I will nevertheless deliver my speech and will probably do OK" which leads to a calmer appraisal of the situation and possibly a more adaptive response.

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