Denton has two universities and one community college. Classes started this week, and you can smell the anxiety in the air. Some students are worried because they finally have to take that class they’ve been putting off. Others got “that” professor. Some got “the talk” from their parents over the break and need to pull their grades up OR ELSE! It seems like the perfect time to focus on some anxiety-reducing techniques. While I love to study the neurochemistry of various disorders, including anxiety, I realize that most other people don’t. In fact, the mere thought of chemistry provokes anxiety! Or does it?
Today we’ll focus on the behavioral aspects of anxiety. Let’s start with Albert Ellis’ ABC Model, one of the models that influenced the development of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Think of a time when you have been anxious. What caused it? School, work, a breakup, finances? Maybe even something specific, like worrying about annoying a friend, or stumbling over your words during a presentation. We often perceive that certain events cause anxiety, but they don’t. Instead, it’s our negative perception of the actual or anticipated event that causes our anxiety. This is the fundamental premise of Albert Ellis’ ABC Model.
Let’s begin by defining some terms. “ABC” stands for:
A-Activating event (a negative event)
B-our Belief about the event
C-the Consequence (our response to our beliefs)
The idea behind the model is that a negative event doesn’t cause our stress or anxiety; our BELIEF about the event does.
Let’s use a common example: school is starting, and you feel unprepared:
A: School is starting
B: “I’m not ready. What if I don’t do well? People are going to think I’m stupid. My parents will kill me.”
C: Anxiety. Unable to focus, trouble sleeping, loss of ambition, fear of even starting or, conversely, not giving yourself a break from studying.
While we are focusing on anxiety today, Ellis’ model is relevant for all sorts of scenarios and responses, not just anxiety. Maybe your go-to emotional reaction is anger, depression, embarrassment, disgust, fear, or a mixture of several of these! The model is still relevant. That being said, looking at the model, what caused your anxiety? School will start no matter what, but your BELIEF is what shapes your reaction to that event.
The takeaway is, the next time you’re experiencing a behavioral consequence, don’t think about or blame the activating event. That may or may not be something you can change, but it did not cause your emotional response. Instead, think of what you can change: your beliefs about and reaction to that event. Recognize when your beliefs are irrational, unhelpful, and problematic, and how they may be creating an extreme consequence.
Let’s look at another common event that provokes anxiety in many: needles. Not all people are afraid of needles. Yet for some, the sight or even thought of a needle induces severe anxiety or even full-blown panic, while others don’t bat an eye as they watch the needle being stuck into their arm. While there are certain objects or situations that humans do appear primed to respond to negatively (Jung’s theory on the collective unconscious describes this in more detail), clearly, needles in and of themselves do not cause anxiety, or all of us would respond to them in the same way. If you are afraid of needles, it is your belief about the needle and its possible consequences that triggers your response, not the needle itself. Let’s map it out:
A: You need a shot or to have blood drawn.
B: Fill in your personal thoughts about the event here.
C: Anxiety. Fill in your specific reactions here. For example, hyperventilating, panicking, becoming oppositional or just plain combative with medical personnel, avoiding medical care altogether, etc.
Next week, we will discuss the D (dispute) and E (effect of challenging/defeating your belief) of this model, and how you can shape and change your beliefs into something more positive. In the meantime, here’s an exercise for you to try:
The next time you’re experiencing anxiety, map it out, and write your ABCs, like the school and needles examples above! It may be helpful to work backward from C to A. Consider starting a journal and mapping out your ABCs every time you feel anxious. Build an awareness of how you think, try to find patterns, and think about why you’re having the beliefs that cause your consequences.