Back to Basics… The ABC Model of Problem Thinking | Anxiety Part 5

Back to Basics … The ABC Model of Problem Thinking
Anxiety Part 5
by Tess Crawley

Today I’d like to talk about some really basic cognitive information that you might find helpful. There’s a model of cognitive change which we refer to as the ABC model. It’s a very simple model to understand and remember.

It talks about how we interpret the environment around us and our interactions with others. It helps us understand why we can be in exactly the same situation as the next person, but have a completely different emotional response. You can even be in a similar situation from one day to the next and have a completely different emotional reaction depending on how you’ve interpreted the situation.

The ABC model starts with A for antecedent. Antecedent means the thing that happened or the thing that came first. For example, you’re standing at a bus stop with a line of people and you’re waiting for the bus to come along. You see the bus coming, but then it just scoots straight past you and doesn’t stop.

The next step in the ABC model is B for belief, or our interpretation of what just happened. If we interpret the bus not stopping as a deliberate act on the part of the driver, we’re going to feel a certain emotional outcome, aren’t we?

This leads us to C for consequence, the emotional consequence of what just happened. In the bus example, our belief that the driver deliberating avoiding stopping to pick us up might lead us to be angry. So to summarise the model, the bus hasn’t stopped (A), which we’ve interpreted as a deliberate act on the part of the driver (B), and that has left us feeling quite angry (C).

Now here’s the interesting part. The next person who’s standing in the queue at the bus stop has experienced the exact same situation (A) but if they have a different interpretation (B), they’ll potentially have a different emotional outcome (C). They might think: “Beauty, I’ve got an excuse for being late! I’ll go and get myself a coffee before the next bus comes.” They might come away smiling, thinking: “I’m feeling a bit happy about this situation.” And what about the next person in the queue at the bus stop? They’ve experienced the same situation, the same bus stop, the same queue of people, the same bus that hasn’t stopped. But they might be thinking: “I’m so hopeless, the bus won’t even stop for me.” So, they might be left feeling utterly defeated and depressed.So as you see, one event, three different people, with three different beliefs about what just happened and three very different emotional outcomes.

What we can take away from this example is that we can’t change the event (A), we can’t go back in time and make the bus stop, but we can change our interpretation of that event (B). If we catch ourselves and say: “Hang on a minute, maybe the bus was full or maybe it wasn’t even picking up passengers today” we can change the negative emotional outcome of that experience, rendering it more benign.

So, if we can work on those beliefs or interpretations of what’s going on in a certain situation we can actually have a direct impact on how we feel. That relates to anxiety, for example, when we have a panic attack. As you probably remember, early on with anxiety we talked about the fight-or-flight response and how the brain makes a mistake as if you were in danger. When there is no actual danger present that’s a panic attack. If there’s a real danger present then it’s appropriate, of course. But when we have a panic attack, often what happens is that someone feels something physical first and then the next thought might be: “Oh my God, I’m having a panic attack!” And then that escalates and escalates until becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if we can jump in really early on and say “Okay, my heart’s racing. My breathing’s getting shallow. Maybe I’m going to have a panic attack.” If we can grab that thought and turn it around and just say: “Hang on a minute. I know what to do here. I can unwind this anxiety. I can calm myself down because I know what to do because I know how to use my breathing.” You will see how the change in that belief instead of acting as if that belief is a fact, instead of reading that like a fact and letting it take hold, we can grab hold of that thought, and say: “Hang on a minute. Do I have to believe that? Do I have to listen to that?” If we can start catching some of those unhelpful thoughts and start saying: “You know what, I actually don’t need to listen to that nonsense.” Some people refer to it as having a monkey chattering away in their mind. You can catch those thoughts and you can grab hold of them and say: “Hey, I don’t need to listen to that today”.

I talked before about catastrophic thinking. That’s one example of those kinds of interpretations that are very unhelpful. Another one is mind reading where you’re assuming that you know what other people think (and assume they’re thinking something negative about you).

So, try to have a look at those thoughts and interpretations of situations you find yourself in. You’ll recognise your negative feelings first. Stop and ask yourself: “What am I thinking here? Are my thoughts helping me? Is this a helpful interpretation? Do I need to listen to this? Is this going to set me up for a good day or a bad day?”

Remember, it’s easier to change a negative thought than it is to live with a negative emotion all day. See how you go.

Best wishes,

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Dr Tess Crawley


Tess has a passion for mentoring new psychologists. She also has a strong interest in supporting executives as they juggle the balance between leadership and new parenthood. You’ll see Tess regularly speaking on our Facebook pages and our YouTube channel. Her mission is to provide as many free resources to the community as she can, so her videos offer tips and strategies that might be helpful to you. Read Tess’s full Bio here.