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The ABC Model of Thinking and Feeling (about depression)

The A-B-C Model of Thinking and Feeling

This handout is about the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and the way they interact to maintain depression, and anxiety. People's style of thinking develops through their life experiences and continue to affect the way they perceive events. Emotions and feelings are not so much a result of events, but rather what we tell ourselves about these events. This is explained by the ABC model.

Events are situations which are, such as being criticised, or being caught in traffic.

Thoughts are the result of our attempts to make sense of everyday events. They occur quickly and often we are not even aware of them. The kinds of thoughts, we have are based on belief systems that we each build up over time as a result of life experiences. The same style of thinking tends to occur automatically, each time we face certain events, so we develop fixed patterns of thinking.

Reactions are the emotions, feelings and behaviours that result from your thoughts. People have different thoughts about the same event, and therefore will feel and act differently as a result.

The A-B-C model states that is not the event which causes the reaction, instead, it is the thoughts that people have about the event, which leads to the emotional reaction. For people with depression and anxiety, these thinking patterns tend to be negative.

Negative thoughts have several characteristics. They are:
  • Automatic, they just pop into your head, without any effort on your part;
  • Distorted, they do not fit all the facts;
  • Unhelpful, they keep you depressed and anxious, make it difficult to change, and stop you from getting what you want out of life;
  • Unquestioned, to accept them as facts, and it does not occur to you to question the them;
  • Involuntary, you do not choose to have them, and they can be very difficult to switch off.
Thoughts like these can trap you in a vicious circle. The more depressed or ranch, you become, the more negative thoughts you have, and the more you believe them. The more negative thoughts, you have, and the more you believe them, the more pressed or anxious, you become.

The main goal of cognitive therapy is to help you break out of this vicious circle.

A Events
B Thoughts
C Reactions

Common Styles of Negative Thinking

Over generalising.
Making sweeping judgments on the basis of one or two examples. (E.g. "all English people are snobs.", "all Americans are loud.", "all male drivers are aggressive.", "I am hopeless at everything I do.").

Selective thinking.
Looking at the world through dark coloured glasses. This pattern of thinking causes you to dwell on that one unpleasant event, dismissing all the nice things that may have come your way. By using selective thinking it is possible to turn a good day into a bad day, simply because one thing may not have gone as well as hoped.

Letting your imagination run wild and telling yourself, how awful or terrible situations are, rather than considering the real consequences. Catastrophising turns situations into life and death issues. (E.g. a headache means a brain tumour, if someone is late home. It means they have been in a serious car accident.). Focusing on "what ifs".

Mind reading
This involves assuming that you know what others are thinking and feeling (usually negative) without asking them. (e.g. "they have not spoken to me all day, they must not like me any more." Or "my friend looked away, while I was talking. Use our seaboard with my conversation.").

Blaming yourself when things go wrong in not recognising that circumstances or other people may have also contributed. (E.g. "he is in such a bad mood today, I wonder what I have done to upset him.").

Black and white thinking.
Black and white thinking occurs when people judge the world in terms of extremes, rather than acknowledging that the world is full of shades of grey. Life is rarely totally hopeless or completely fantastic. Activities are rarely completely successful or complete failures. The truth usually lies somewhere in between these extremes.

Setting unrealistic expectations.
When you have unrealistic expectations, or inflexible rules which must be met by yourself, or others, to avoid failure. (E. G. "if you start something you should always finish it.", "if you do something you should do it properly."). Unrealistic expectations are often associated with words like "always", 'must', 'should' and 'have to'.

Listed below are some questions that can be used to challenge particular negative thinking styles.

Over generalising.
  • What is the evidence for my conclusion?
  • Are there other explanations?
  • Have I gathered sufficient evidence (facts) or am I jumping to conclusions on the basis of one or two incidents?
Selective thinking.
  • Am I only thinking about the negative things that have happened, has anything good happened?
  • Is there anything positive about this situation that I am ignoring or not paying enough attention
  • to?
  • Even if my thought is true, what is so terrible about it?
  • Are things really as bad as I'm making out?
  • How likely is it that the worst will actually occur?
  • What is most likely to happen?
  • Is the problem time limited? How much will it matter next month or next year?
Mind reading.
  • How do I know what the other person is thinking about me? What evidence do I have?
  • What is the harm to me if a stranger thinks badly of me?
  • Am I totally to blame to this negative event?
  • Have circumstances or other people also contributed?
Black and white thinking.
  • Am I thinking in terms of opposites or extremes?
  • Is there some middle ground that is more realistic than an extreme?
Setting unrealistic expectations.
  • Are my expectations of the situation, or of myself, realistic?
  • In what way could I alter my expectations, to make it easier for myself?
  • Would other people have the same expectations of themselves in this situation?
  • Have I adjusted my expectations to take account of the fact that I'm feeling depressed./anxious?
  • Is it reasonable to think that other people should be, or do things, the way I like it.
Challenging negative thought patterns.

Once you start identifying the negative thoughts. You can learn to change them into ways of thinking that are more helpful or realistic.

A significant problem in depression and anxiety is that because you feel bad, you tend to accept unrealistic and illogical negative thoughts, simply because they support your bad feelings. Because you feel negative, it seems to make sense to think negatively. Feelings, however, can change from one day to the next (or even from one minute to the next) so it does not help to just accept the negative thoughts. View your thoughts as theories that need to be tested before being accepted as fact. You can do this by gathering evidence about your thoughts to see if they are true, or by considering whether there are other ways of thinking about the same situation.

If you decide that there are more helpful and positive ways of thinking about the situation, your mood will often improve as a result.

Steps to challenge thoughts.
  • Write down you negative thoughts when you are depressed or anxious.
  • Notice whether your thoughts shows some of the common styles of negative thinking (e.g.,
  • mind reading).
  • Use the questions below to challenge the negative thoughts.
Reality testing.
  • What evidence or support do I have for this thought?
  • Is there any evidence against this thought?
Alternative explanations.
  • Is what I believe the only or best way to explain what is happening?
  • Are there any other explanations?
Putting it into perspective.
  • Are things really as bad as I am making out?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • How likely is it that the worst will, in fact happen?
  • If it does happen, can I live through it?
  • Will it still matter in a month, or next year?
  • What is most likely to happen?
  • What is positive about the situation?
  • What would I tell________(a friend). If he or she were in the same situation?
Taking control.
  • What is the effect of my believing the automatic thought?
  • What could be the effect of changing my thinking?
  • Is there something I can do to change/improve the situation?

For Sage

Sage, your comments about this, which appears to make a great deal of sense to me, would be greatly appreciated.
Here's the above as a PDF document and also as a MS Word document:

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