The World of Work Project

The ABC Framework for Overcoming Stressful Situations

The ABC model says that the way we respond to a negative event is shaped by both the event itself and our internal beliefs. While we can’t normally change events, we can change our internal beliefs. By doing so, we can improve how we respond to negative events.

Summary by The World of Work Project

The ABC framework for overcoming stressful situations

The ABC model for overcoming stress is a simple framework that helps explain how stressful situations can affect our actions and behaviors. The model also provides insight into how we can improve our behaviors when we do experience stressful situations. The model is linked with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In the model A stands for activating event (or trigger), B stands for beliefs and C stands for consequences.

What the model says

The model says that the way we respond to any situation is a function of both the situation and of our own beliefs and internal thought processes. The implication of this is that we can change the way we respond to situations by either changing the situation, or by changing our internal beliefs.

These internal beliefs often appear in the form of “self-talk”, which is a name given to the internally monologue that everyone has whirring away inside their head all of the time.

Let’s look at an example. If you receive some challenging feedback in work, then the way you respond to that feedback will be heavily influenced not just by the feedback, but also by your beliefs and the stories you tell yourself. If you tell yourself that the feedback must mean that you’re dreadful at your job and no one likes you, then you’ll probably become quite stressed, unhappy and unable to do your job well.

If, alternatively, you tell yourself that the feedback means that you can improve and that the person who told you the feedback must really want to help you get better, then you may embrace the feedback and feel positive.

While the activating event in these examples is exactly the same, the beliefs through which the event is interpreted are fundamentally different, which leads to very different responses.

Beliefs are a bit like a lens through which you see the world.

Given that our beliefs clearly affect how we respond to difficult situations, it follows that if we change our beliefs, then we can change the way we respond to difficult situations. This changing of beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves often involves re-framing situations and is an important part of CBT. It’s something that everyone can do with a bit of practice, and it’s something that coaching or counseling can also help with.

The ABC model for individuals

From an individual perspective, developing an understanding of the types of beliefs you hold and the self-talk that they lead to can help you start to recognize when your beliefs are not helping you. As soon as you identify beliefs that lead to unhelpful self-talk, then it’s worth trying to challenge those beliefs. There are some models, such as the ETC model that individuals can use “in the moment” to help them challenge negative beliefs. It’s also possible to address beliefs over longer term periods of reflection and challenge when not “in the moment”.

Ultimately, if you can successfully challenge your unhelpful beliefs and replace them with a new set of positive and helpful believes, then you’ll be a better place and better able to positively respond to negative events. This process can take a long time, and it isn’t always possible to do on your own. You may benefit from some coaching if you’d like to change your beliefs and self-talk. Potentially someone in work can help you with this.

Sometimes just thinking about things can be helpful.

The ABC model for leaders

From a leadership perspective, the more you can help your team members develop helpful beliefs and self-talk, the better able they will be to respond positively in difficult situations. Helping them change their beliefs may not be simple, but it is something you could explore in your coaching conversations with them.

The World of Work Project View

This model isn’t complex at all, but it is helpful. It really is the case that in many instances it’s not possible to change events in life, but it is possible to change the way we think about things and our beliefs.

We think that everyone should have an awareness of this model and what it means for them. In many instances individuals in work and out of work can benefit in changing their beliefs and the way they think about things, and this is the basis of some forms of coaching (for example, the ABCDE coaching model).

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

Most of the information used as the basis for this post comes from various different places on the internet, though it all derives primarily from the world of cognitive behavioral therapy. You can read more in a range of books, or learn more from the audio book “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brain” by Jason Satterfield.


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