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Stress: learning how to use the ABC model can help you cope with stressful situations

Posted by for Mental Health

Feeling stressed but don’t know what to do about it? The ABC model is used a lot in cognitive behavioural therapy and learning how it works could not only help ease anxiety but also help you become more positive. Two experts explain how it works and how to use it. 

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It can often feel like stress is part and parcel of modern life. Even before the uncertainty of the pandemic left us dealing with burnout with working from home and successive lockdowns, a study found 90% of UK workers feel stressed most of the time. More recent studies have even described the UK as a ‘stressed nation’ with 74% of adults feeling so stressed at some point over the last year that they’ve felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

“Stress is massive at the moment,” says Claire Davis, a stress management consultant and founder of Midlife Mentors. “The pandemic has been a really stressful time with our work and home lives becoming blurred and the huge effect it’s had on our personal lives.”

Stress is a physiological response in the body that happens when we feel threatened or under pressure. “We’ve all heard of fight or flight. We’ve inherited this from our ancestors, so it’s in our DNA to be wary of danger,” says Claire. “But while this is useful and was useful for our ancestors who operated in pure survival mode, now we’re responding to stressful events, like an email, in the same physiological way and we’ve normalised it. So we’re sitting in that constant hum of stress.”

Being able to control our response to events we find stressful can help us cope and deal with stress, which is where a useful method called the ABC model comes in.

The ABC model was created by an American psychologist called Dr Albert Ellis and then adapted by Dr Martin Seligman. It works by helping us to understand what situations trigger our stress response, why it happens and what it causes us to do.

“The key to the ABC model is recognition,” says Dr Audrey Tang, a psychologist, mental health and wellness expert and author of books on mindfulness and resilience. “The model can help you get to the root of what’s making you stressed and help create practical ways to overcome it.”

Here, Claire and Dr Tang explain what the ABC model is and how you can use it day-to-day to help you deal with stress more easily. 

What is the ABC model?

The ABC model is derived from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and helps to explore why we react to certain situations in certain ways.

The ‘A’ stands for ‘adversity’, or, in Seligman’s model, ‘activating event’. “This is the trigger that sets off your stress response or your heightened emotion,” says Dr Tang. “I prefer to use Seligman’s wording because an activating event could be positive or negative; either way, it’s an event or situation that’s going to send us into a heightened state of emotion where we act irrationally.”

‘B’ stands for ‘beliefs’. “When the activating event happens it will trigger a set of beliefs in us,” says Dr Tang. “These are automatic thoughts you start thinking when that event occurs.”

Lastly, ‘C’ stands for the ‘consequences’ that the activating event and your belief system around it create.

To explain this Claire uses the example of being stressed about giving a work presentation. “The activating event is your boss emailing you and telling you to give a presentation,” says Claire. “This might lead to beliefs like ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘The last time I did that, I failed’ or ‘No one will listen to me’. The consequence of this is that you feel stressed and worried, you have an accelerated heart rate and you can’t sleep.”  

Dr Audrey Tang
Dr Tang uses the three R method to help support her clients.

Reflecting on the ABC model

Usually, our brains go through the reactions in the ABC model so quickly that we don’t know we’re doing it. However, knowing how the model works means we can use it to reflect on stressful situations and analyse why they’ve made us feel this way. Once you have a better understanding of what causes you stress, you can equip yourself to deal with it better.

“When we’re in a point of crisis we won’t necessarily be able to go through A, B and C,” says Dr Tang. “But, afterwards, when we’re away from that point of crisis, it can help to sit down to reflect, process and deal with it.”

You can do this simply by thinking through the ABC model when you have some quiet time to yourself, or by writing it down. “Journaling can be really transformational and can get us out of our heads,” says Dr Tang.  

Analysing the activating event

Understanding what has triggered our stress or heightened emotion can help us plan around it, avoid it or take steps to minimise it.

“When we’re writing down activating events in a journal it can help us to establish the root cause – it may not always be what we initially think,” says Dr Tang. “You might think my sister really annoys me every time I see her when really it’s something else your sister embodies that makes you feel stressed.”

“It’s always useful to think about whether we can minimise the trigger or activating event,” says Claire. “For example, if there’s a certain friend that really winds you up, could you put more boundaries down?”  

However, as Claire explains, “We can’t minimise all events, in which case you have to think about how you respond to it instead.”  

Claire Davis
Claire Davis is a stress management consultant and founder of Midlife Mentors.

Reflecting on our beliefs and changing the consequences

Reframing our beliefs about an event can help us change how we react to it. “We can think that our belief patterns or our personalities are fixed, but actually neuroscience proves that the neurons in our brain can be rewired and we can build new neural pathways in the brain,” says Claire.

Understanding what our beliefs are about certain events is the first step to reframing and reprogramming the mind and changing our response. “Looking at the model you might find that an activating event happens quite frequently and the consequences are that I start shouting and can’t think straight,” says Claire. “Now you can ask yourself, ‘What’s the belief system behind that? What’s going on?’ you might then think, ‘Am I overreacting?’, ‘Am I overgeneralizing?, ‘Am I looking at the situation in a very finite way?’ It’s all about silencing that pesky little inner critic that makes us think we can’t do things when we can.”

“We create belief systems based on things that have happened to us,” says Claire. “In the past, a certain circumstance may have caused us humiliation, sadness or pain, and to protect us the subconscious mind will create belief systems about certain situations even if they’re not true.” This can affect our inner dialogue making us over-catastrophise or overreact to certain situations However, we can learn to change these mindsets.

Affirmations

Claire suggests using affirmations to reframe your internal dialogue: “Have a think about what belief system you would need to develop to change your response to an activating event. Then think about affirmations you can say to encourage this.”

This might be things such as repeating the phrase, “I am a really interesting person. I am not boring”, or “I am good at presenting. I am a powerful presence in a room”. 

“The more you think a certain thought, the thicker the neuron becomes in our neural pathway,” says Claire. This means the more you try and think in a different way the more natural it will become. “You can reframe and reprogram the mind to choose your responses and learn to be more optimistic about certain events,” says Claire.

Use another ABC model

Another ABC model that is used in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) can also help us reframe our belief system and make us feel more optimistic.

“In this model, the ‘A’ stands for ‘accumulate positive’ experiences,” says Dr Tang. “This can help us build up a positivity reservoir by doing things or keeping things around us that make us smile.” This could be anything from spending time with loved ones that make us feel great or reading a book you enjoy.

“The ‘B’ is ‘build mastery’,” says Dr Tang. “Remember that Friends episode where Monica gets a bad restaurant review so she goes to a beginner’s cooking class and is the best in the class? That is building mastery. Reminding yourself you’re competent and good at things.”

The ‘C’, in this model, stands for ‘cope ahead’. “Again, by understanding what your activating events and beliefs are you can create a clear crisis plan to make you feel safe in stressful situations,” says Dr Tang. This could be anything from having a fiddle toy in your bag you can play with when you get stressed to having an emergency tea bag on hand.” 

You can find more expert tips and tutorials on The Curiosity Academy’s Instagram page.

Images: Getty, Dr Audery Tang and Claire Davis

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