Toolbox - ABC Emotional Upsets

ABC Emotional Upsets - Facilitators' Edition

Point 1, Point 2, Point 3, Point 4


When to use this tool: This is a good tool to use when members become upset about frustrations and failures at any point in recovery.

Common questions or statements that may prompt using this tool:

  • “I can’t quit. I am a failure! What’s wrong with me?”
  • “I’ve been clean and sober for some time and nothing is working out.”
  • “What’s the use? I’m still miserable/angry/depressed/anxious.”

Example of its use in a SMART meeting:

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) can contribute to our overall mental and emotional wellbeing. Also, learning and using REBT can help us prevent everyday upsets from leading to lapse/relapse urges. Two specific techniques that we find helpful are the ABCs and Disputing.

The ABCs allow us to discover our irrational thinking (irrational Beliefs or iBs) which contributes to emotional upsets. Disputing helps us eliminate our irrational thinking so we can both feel better and do better. In SMART Recovery we teach that we feel the way we think; it’s not unpleasant events that disturb us, it’s the way we think of them. By changing our thinking, we change how we feel.

First, the ABCs:

A represents the Activating Event or Adversity which we normally assume is the cause of our emotional upsets.

B represents the real cause: our beliefs, perceptions, ideas, and cognitions about the real or imagined adversity, “A”.

C is the emotional and behavioral consequences of your thoughts, such as discomfort, anxiety, and GREATER URGES.


When doing the ABCs, it can help to know that most irrational beliefs fall into three categories:

  1. Beliefs about yourself. Example: I must do well or else I’m no good.
  2. Beliefs about others. Example: Others must treat me nicely and kindly and just the way I want or else they are no good.
  3. Beliefs about life in general. Example: The world must make it easy for me to get what I want and must create circumstances, so things always go my way, or else it’s a lousy rotten world.

These three kinds of beliefs create the three main emotional upsets of:

  • Anxiety/guilt/shame,
  • Anger/hostility/rage, and
  • Depression.

They also create demandingness, whining, condemnation and damnation of ourselves and others, and exaggeration beyond the bounds of reality. Unpleasant emotions are unavoidable and can even be motivating and helpful. But we humans have the natural ability to escalate unpleasant feelings to the level of emotional upset, which easily defeats us.

In REBT, we are not trying to eliminate all unpleasant emotions, just those that hinder us. Disputing allows us to eliminate irrational thinking that contributes to our disturbed emotions. Then we may remain reasonably sad or concerned so we can be more effective at dealing with difficult situations.

To accomplish this, we use:

D to Dispute the irrational “Bs”. Learn to recognize the inaccurate beliefs and distortions of reality which we use to defeat ourselves and needlessly make ourselves miserable.


E to Exchange effective, more accurate, rational self-statements for our dysfunctional beliefs.

Helpful Links:

Contact Us

Contact Us