The ABC of CBT – the starter exercise/handout to catch your negative automatic thoughts…


Note: the following is an old archive version of the ABC handout – download the new one (PDF) here: The ABC of CBT mini workbook

Introducing the ‘ABC’ Technique of cognitive behavioral therapy.

If we cannot ‘catch’ our negative automatic thoughts, (how we are explaining things to ourselves, literally), then we cannot examine and challenge them.

CBT gives you homework and exercises designed to guide and mentor you in the process of identifying unhealthy distorted thinking, and reframing it to healthy rational thinking instead. It’s a life changing skill – one that you develop through ‘learning and doing’. Initially through journalling, and then though mental tasks.

This post is a guide to the simple starter exercise, the ABC(D) thought identification and dispute forms…. you might use a hardback notebook where you can create these columns and fill them in yourself? Or download and print our sample form…

Apologies if your browser messes up fonts and whatnot, you can click to download the old archive PDF version of this post HERE: ABCD_PDF .. – or download the new updated PDF version HERE: The ABC of CBT mini workbook)

Learn it, and do it, and enjoy!

abc-blocksThe ABC 3 column form is the staple CBT worksheet –: the a-b-c format is the initial and main method of CBT ‘thought identification’ – we use it to match thoughts to feelings and events – usually working backwards! With us filling in the ‘emotional and behavioural’ that is troubling us or causing us problems first, and then identifying the event(s) and the exact thought(s) that accompany it. These simple forms are invaluable, especially at the start of practicing CBT (becoming your own therapist) – they help us to build awareness of ‘how’ we think – they help us to see patterns of bad thinking habits and links to self sabotaging behaviour  – and most importantly, they help us see that our thoughts are often irrational, illogical and unhelpful…. Below I give some examples to guide you:

A = Activating Event B = Belief/thought C = emotional and behavioural Consequence
I have an important exam approaching ‘I’m going to fail! This is unbearable, I can’t stand it. I’ll never be able to prepare for it, not with life the way it is right now. I’m useless, why am I bothering? There’s no point. Anxious – can’t sleep – can’t focus.
My partner has ended our relationship. I can’t live without her. I’ll never find anybody like her again. Everybody always breaks up with me. I’ll never be in a proper relationship. Nobody will ever love me. I can’t cope with being alone, it’s awful. Depressed – avoiding people and events – neglecting personal hygiene
My friend got a job we went for, not me! That is unbelievable – he’s a thick. And he’s not even good looking. Or funny. Or anything. Oh no, I must be even worse than him then! Or the interviewers are total idiots! Yes, they are. And I hate him. It’s not fair! Angry, aggressive – irritable and flying off the handle.

See what we mean about identifying exact thoughts, and the emotions and behaviours the thoughts cause? Do you see how writing them down helps us to see that they may very well be (and often are) irrational and unhelpful? That they don’t really fit with the facts, and that we’re causing our own extreme and inappropriate upsettness and self defeating behaviour because of them? Good…

After identifying our thoughts, we need to challenge them when they are irrational (dispute them with evidence and facts and alternative healthy thinking…) – so we add a fourth column ‘D’…

The following table gives several examples to show you how it’s done… You might try doing your own chart based on your own thinking?

(Reminder – identifying your unhealthy thinking and deliberately disputing the thoughts with healthy rational thinking will bring healthy emotional responses.)

A = Activating Event B = Belief/thought C = Consequence feelings/behaviour
I have to give a presentation! I am going to make a show of myself. It’s going to be AWFUL. I’ll be shaking, my mouth will be dry, I can’t do it. People will laugh at me. Anxious, afraid, can’t concentrate on putting together the content… feel ill, can’t stop thinking about it.

D = dispute
: Fortune telling as an absolute fact that ‘I AM’ going to make a show of myself is irrational. That’s fortune telling a future that I have no clue about. It would be more correct to say ‘I am afraid I’ll make a show of myself, but I don’t know how it will pan out’.Same goes for ‘I will be shaking’, ‘I can’t do it’, and ‘People will laugh at me’. Fortune telling! I simply fear these imaginings, I have no actual evidence those thoughts are rational and correct. I will ‘thought stop’ and disagree with and derail these thoughts as they occur rather than running them over and over in my head.
A = Activating Event B = Belief/thought C = Consequence feelings/behaviour
I heard that the gang were out for dinner last week – without me! Nobody likes me. I’m dull. I’m not nice. Life is horrible. I’m not talking to them, I want to ‘get them back’. No – I want to make them love me. Oh, I can’t stop thinking about it… Ashamed, humiliated, embarrassed, anxious, worried. Can’t stop thinking about it. Re-running movie of it over and over in my head. Keep talking to everyone about it, asking for reassurance

D = dispute
: It simply is not factual that ‘nobody’ in the world likes me. I have and have had people in my life that have shown they like me, it would be more correct to say that I’m having problems with my social networking right now that I plan to work on.I’m being very hard on myself stating that I ‘am’ dull and not nice – I’ve had plenty of experiences where I was happy and had fun in situations, my feelings and behaviour varies depending on situations and people and moods, just like everybody else. It would be more correct to say that I’m not happy with the way I feel and behave right now, and am aiming to change it.It’s not true that ‘life is horrible’, I can think of lots of things that are the total opposite of horrible. It would be more correct to say that I’m not enjoying life as I wish I would, I find things difficult right now.It’s not healthy for me to obsess about revenge on or reassurance from the gang in this situation. I can make a decision to live with this and accept it. I do not know the circumstances of what happened and I shouldn’t assume the worst. And, even if there is conflict, I don’t have to join in. Just because someone thinks little of you, you don’t have to agree with it.
A = Activating Event B = Belief/thought C = Consequence feelings/behaviour
I have an interview! I haven’t a hope of getting this job. There’ll be hundreds of applicants and I can’t compete. I’ll be nervous and ‘ordinary’ and tongue tied. It’s unbearable. I can’t stop worrying about it. It’s not worth putting myself through this, after all I know what will happen. Anxious, nervous, can’t face preparing, trying to ‘ignore it’ until I have to face it.

D = dispute
: Stating ‘I haven’t a hope’ or ‘can’t compete’ is irrational as I cannot tell what will happen in the future. It would be more correct to say that I’m nervous and worried that I won’t get it and will contrast poorly with other applicants. Most people would feel that way.Yes, I expect I will probably be nervous, but that’s perfectly normal and most people are nervous at interviews.I shouldn’t label myself ‘ordinary’, everybody is unique, that term is redundant.I may or may not be ‘tongue tied, but what is that anyway?It’s not rational to imagine my tongue actually ‘tieing’ and being unusable, and that image causes me to be upset – I will change that statement, it’s not useful.Using the term ‘unbearable’ is not correct, I can in fact bear it, it would be more correct to say I’m nervous and would rather not be in a situation where I need to ‘bear’ it.It’s not helpful or rational to opt out of it because of fortune telling, it’s more correct to say that I have no idea what will happen. All I can do is by best – and I’m not living if I’m not showing up…

BLANK FORMS (Use the below table as a template guide – get an A4 journal, turn it sideways, and draft your columns – and/or browse and download the form links below for printing:

CBT_Handout_ABCD2  – or use these updated ones: PDF form: The ABCD blank thought form model or the MS word editable table template: abcd with dispute box or the alternative PDF form: abcd blank form

A = Activating Event B = Belief/thought C =
Consequential feelings/behaviour
D =
Dispute with Evidence –

11 thoughts on “The ABC of CBT – the starter exercise/handout to catch your negative automatic thoughts…

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  6. how refreshing to have good simple focus resources free on line.Helping others we are helping ourselves.
    Am trying to integrate cbt and nlp more into my life and like your style .


  7. Love the article, I’m about to write a post on CBT and might just link your site in as a great info site, I hope that is OK!


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