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Using the ABCs to Change Your thoughts

One of the ten keys to good brain health is killing ANTS—Automatic Negative Thoughts. We’ve talked before about some tactics you can use to recognize and change your thoughts in a positive light. These principles are grounded in the work of Albert Ellis, a pivotal figure in the development of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. And to keep it simple, the framework he designed is as easy as ABC.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a therapeutic framework grounded in the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Unlike traditional therapeutic approaches, CBT focuses on the present. It explores how your thought patterns influence your emotional responses and actions. At its core, CBT operates on the belief that changing your thoughts can transform your emotional well-being through changed behavior.

As we mentioned, one of the early pioneers of this therapy was Albert Ellis. He became a trailblazer in this form of treatment by challenging the popular and conventional psychoanalytic methods of the time. His groundbreaking theories introduced a structured way of understanding the interplay between external events, your beliefs, and the resulting emotional and behavioral consequences.

The ABC Model

The ABC model stands for Activating events, Beliefs, and Consequences. Ellis argued it’s not the events themselves shaping your emotional responses but rather the beliefs you hold about those events. By identifying and challenging these beliefs, you can interrupt negative thinking patterns and rewire your brain for positive emotional outcomes.

In essence, Ellis’s theories highlight the dynamic nature of your cognitive processes and emphasize the power you hold in shaping your own psychological responses. He encouraged a proactive and rational approach to mental well-being by promoting the idea that you are capable of changing your thought patterns. In doing so, you will enjoy healthier and happier emotional experiences and behaviors.

A: Activating Events

The first element is learning to recognize the activating event. You can’t change a negative thought until you realize you’re having them. According to research, as much as 95% of your brain activity is unconscious. That means you may be having thoughts that lead to emotional reactions that you’re not aware of. By taking the time to learn how to recognize those thoughts, you’re taking the first step in removing the power they have over you.

This step might seem straightforward, but it does require some time and practice. As mentioned, it’s difficult to recognize a thought you’re not consciously aware you’re having. A good place to start is to identify areas of your life where you typically are left with negative emotions. Keep a notebook with you and when you start to feel angry, sad, or uncertain, take a moment to think about what is happening in the situation and what your response is. If this feels overwhelming, there are many trained clinicians and therapists who can help guide you through this process.

B — Beliefs

Once you’ve identified what situations are triggering your negative thoughts, you can dig a little deeper into where those thoughts are coming from. These are your internal beliefs, or the LIEs you tell yourself. Maybe you feel like if you make a mistake that means you’re not good enough or don’t deserve to be happy. It isn’t the mistake that triggers that feeling but the belief you hold about the mistake. Learning how to understand and challenge these beliefs is a crucial element in transforming your cognitive landscape.

There are two steps to overcoming your beliefs. The first is to create a positive affirmation to replace the negative belief. If your LIE is “I’m not good enough”, you could replace it with, “I work very hard”, or “Mistakes don’t determine my worth”. Every time you recognize the LIE, you sit with the positive affirmation repeating it either out loud, in writing, or silently to yourself. This helps train your brain to begin embracing the new thought.

This takes time, and in the beginning, it might feel strange or awkward. You might even find resistance in even saying the thought. But that’s why this step is so important. The more you repeat the new affirmation, the easier it becomes to accept it as truth. Remember, you weren’t born with these negative beliefs, they were learned. Which means you can teach yourself these new replacements.

The second step is to gradually begin exploring yourself to more challenging situations. If you’re learning to overcome mistakes, you’re going to want to get out of your comfort zone and engage in activities where you’re going to make mistakes. Each time you encounter a mistake, you take the time to recognize the mistake and replace your negative thoughts with your new positive affirmation. Over time, you’ll find that you’re able to make more mistakes and your confidence in your abilities will grow as you face new challenges.

C — Consequences

The third and final step is understanding the consequences. This is tackling the emotional and behavioral outcomes of your beliefs. Essentially, this is drilling down into the why of your negative beliefs. It sounds a little daunting, but this is less about needing to confront the past and more about looking into your future.

When you hold only limiting or negative beliefs, it often leads to undesirable consequences. This might manifest as stress, anxiety, or self-sabotaging behaviors. You might put yourself out there less at work or in your personal life, or find that you avoid certain situations altogether. As long as you hold onto these beliefs and allow these thoughts to take hold, these consequences will continue to emerge.

You can tackle this element in the same way you’re tackling your LIEs. Recognize the current consequences and project a new, positive consequence. For example, if you’re avoiding making a mistake, this may have kept you from learning to play a musical instrument. A new consequence would be enjoying playing music on your own. Consequences are neither good or bad, and you are in control of both.


At its core, the ABCs of changing your thoughts is simply an easy-to-remember roadmap. When you recognize your thoughts, reframe your beliefs, and understand the potential consequences, you’re taking control of your emotional outcomes. You will no longer avoid situations or feel powerless to your reactions. In turn, you’ll develop a more positive and resilient mindset that will lead you to a truly limitless life.

To learn more about how to transform negative thoughts, check out this video:

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