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What is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy?

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Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy developed by American psychologist Albert Ellis in the 1950s.

The goal of REBT is to change irrational and self-defeating beliefs that underlie negative emotions and self-defeating behavior. Through identifying and disputing these irrational beliefs, clients learn to adopt more balanced and constructive thinking.

In this article, we will explore the key concepts, assumptions, techniques, and applications of rational emotive behavior therapy.

The ABC Model of Emotions

At the core of REBT is Albert Ellis’s famous ABC model of emotions. This model looks at the interaction between Activating events, Beliefs, and Consequences.

According to Ellis, our emotional and behavioral Consequences (C) are largely influenced by ourBeliefs (B) about what happens to us, not just the external events themselves (A).

For example, let’s say someone gets fired from their job (the Activating event). Most people would experience some negative emotional reaction like sadness, anger, or anxiety. But the degree and intensity of that reaction depends greatly on what Beliefs they hold about getting fired.

If they believe “Getting fired means I’m a failure” or “Now I’ll never find another job,” their emotional distress will be much worse compared to someone who thinks “Losing this job just means it wasn’t the right fit” or “I’ll use this experience to help me in my next role.”

According to REBT, irrational and dysfunctional Beliefs are what cause psychological distress and self-defeating behavior—not external events alone. By identifying and disputing irrational beliefs, clients learn to hold more constructive and flexible beliefs that result in healthier emotions and behavior. This is the essence of the ABC model and core change process in REBT.

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Irrational Beliefs

A key concept in REBT is irrational beliefs—absolutist, catastrophic, or unrealistic thoughts that individuals hold about themselves, others, or the world. Some common types of irrational beliefs outlined by Ellis include:

Awfulizing – Exaggerating the importance of minor problems or setbacks, expecting disaster or the worst possible outcome.

Catastrophizing – Believing that something bad will definitely happen, emphasizing only the negatives and ignoring any positives.

Global evaluations – Judging entire aspects of oneself or situations in global, absolute terms like “always,” “never,” “completely,” etc.

Demandingness – Insisting that things “should” or “ought” to be different than they are and that it’s awful or catastrophic if they are not.

Low frustration tolerance – Believing one cannot stand or endure discomfort, frustration, or pain for any significant length of time.

According to REBT theory, these irrational beliefs are the root cause of psychological issues like depression, anxiety, and anger problems.

By learning to recognize and dispute their irrational beliefs, clients develop more flexible rational beliefs that result in more adaptive coping.

Disputing Irrational Beliefs

A core technique in REBT is disputing—the process of questioning, examining evidence for and against, and replacing irrational beliefs with more rational and constructive alternatives. Some common disputing techniques used in REBT include:

The law of small probabilities. Point out how unlikely catastrophic outcomes are.

Evidence/experience. Ask for specific evidence to support irrational claims. Most can’t be proven.

Alternative explanations. Offer plausible alternative interpretations of events.

Examining extreme language. Question absolutist terms like “always”, “never”, etc. Are they truly 100%?

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Pragmatic/functional assessment. Examine if beliefs help or hurt coping and well-being.

Experimental testing. Suggest experiments where clients test beliefs against reality.

Recognition of multiple factors. Note many variables influence outcomes, not one belief.

Flexible thinking. Differentiate preference from demand and develop flexibility.

Cost/benefit analysis. Weigh costs of holding on to irrational beliefs.

Through guided disputation sessions, clients learn to think more rationally and hold beliefs better aligned with coping well in different situations.

Additional Techniques

In addition to the core ABC model and disputation, REBT incorporates several other therapeutic techniques:

Homework assignments. Clients practice recognizing and disputing irrational thoughts/emotions between sessions. Behavioral experiments. Test irrational beliefs by acting contrary to anxious predictions.

Semantic method. Change underlying meaning/interpretation rather than just disputing thoughts. Rational self-statement. Teach clients to talk to themselves rationally using “I can” rather than “I can’t.”

Role-playing. Enact conversations to learn more adaptive communication patterns. Imagined modeling. Visualize internalized role models handling situations effectively.

Humor. Learning to laugh at self-defeating patterns of thinking can fight rigidity. Lifestyle assessment. Examine daily routines for stress triggers and incompatible habits.

Social support. Involve close others to reinforce rational thinking and healthy behaviors. The eclectic and multipronged nature of REBT techniques makes it applicable to a wide variety of issues.

Applications and Effectiveness

REBT was originally developed to treat neurosis and has since been applied to many other disorders including:

Depression and dysthymia. Targets irrational beliefs about needing approval, perfectionism. Generalized anxiety disorder. Challenges threat overestimation, intolerance of uncertainty.

Social anxiety and phobias. Disputes beliefs of inadequacy and of catastrophes in social situations. Anger problems. Addresses demands for fair treatment and low frustration tolerance.

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Perfectionism. Questions need for flawlessness and harsh self/other evaluation. Low self-esteem. Works to build more self-acceptance and balanced self-evaluation. Relationship conflicts. TEaches flexible communication skills and unconditional acceptance.

Research has shown REBT to be as effective as other evidence-based therapies for many conditions. Several meta-analyses have found its techniques significantly reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem compared to no-treatment groups.

Outcomes are often maintained long-term as well. The structured yet flexible nature of REBT makes it accessible for a diversity of clients and therapists.

Review Summary

In summary, rational emotive behavior therapy is a pragmatic, solution-focused type of cognitive-behavioral therapy. At its core is the ABC model—that our emotions and behaviors are influenced greatly by our underlying beliefs, not just external events alone.

REBT posits that psychological distress stems from irrational, inflexible beliefs. Through discovering and disputing these irrational beliefs using techniques like the law of small probabilities and pragmatic assessment, clients learn to adopt more balanced, rational beliefs.

This results in healthier emotions, improved coping, and resolution of problems like depression, anxiety, social phobia, anger issues, and relationship conflicts.

Research supports REBT’s effectiveness, making it a prevalent therapeutic approach worldwide. Its structured yet adaptable techniques contribute to wide applicability across clients, contexts, and treatment providers

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