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Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: How Thoughts Create Reality

Do you ever wonder what triggers your feelings? Or have you ever felt angry, stressed, or lonely for no apparent reason? A possible explanation is that our feelings stem from our thoughts rather than the events in our lives. This theory is based on the research of Albert Ellis, the American psychiatrist who developed rational […]

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW
stressed out person

Updated on May 29, 2024

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Do you ever wonder what triggers your feelings? Or have you ever felt angry, stressed, or lonely for no apparent reason? A possible explanation is that our feelings stem from our thoughts rather than the events in our lives.

This theory is based on the research of Albert Ellis, the American psychiatrist who developed rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). Back in the 1950s, Ellis concluded that irrational beliefs are at the core of depression, anxiety, and emotional distress. 

REBT aims to change the way we perceive our experiences so we can live more fully and develop better relationships. Let’s see how it’s used, what it involves, and who can benefit from it.

What Is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy?

The Albert Ellis Institute defines REBT as an action-oriented approach to identifying and changing self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. Its role is to help people understand limiting thought patterns so they can take the steps needed to correct them.

At its core, REBT is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with roots in ancient philosophical ideas. Its founder, Albert Ellis, spent decades studying the works of Seneca, Confucius, Marcus Aurelius, and other philosophers.

The primary difference between REBT and other types of CBT is its emphasis on evaluative beliefs. Basically, it lies on the premise that we assign value to things based on how we think about them. The same applies to the experiences we go through. It’s our thinking that influences how we feel about those experiences and their impact on our mood and emotions.

Other CBT approaches focus on inferential or descriptive beliefs. The former are based on our logical reasoning, observations, and past experiences rather than direct sensory perception. Descriptive beliefs, on the other hand, are based on factual claims about the things around us.

Additionally, rational emotive behavior therapy focuses on the present. Its premise is that the past has no power over our present lives and that we  should break away from past experiences that cause emotional distress.

How Does It Work?

The premise behind REBT is that our irrational thoughts and beliefs trigger feelings of guilt, anger, stress, and depression. These negative feelings affect our everyday lives, keeping us from achieving personal and professional success.

REBT therapists aim to help their clients develop rational beliefs and thoughts so they can lead more fulfilling lives.

“As a trauma therapist, I use Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) to educate clients about the relationship between thoughts, mood, and behavior. If they can identify their thoughts and change them for more factual statements, they will have the power to change their mood and behavior,” explains Katia Arroyo-Carrion, a licensed clinical psychologist with Grow Therapy.

Unhealthy thoughts cause people to ignore the good in their lives and focus on the negative. They also promote cognitive distortion, or illogical reasoning.

For example, you may think that something bad is going to happen and, consequently, live in fear. If you don’t get the job you want, you may feel like a failure. These cognitive distortions can affect mental health over time, leading to depression and feelings of hopelessness.

Although everyone experiences cognitive distortions from time to time, leaving them unchecked and unchallenged can lead to major problems, including heightened anxiety, relationship issues, lack of motivation, social isolation, and depression.

The goal of REBT is to break the cycle of irrational thinking and help you develop healthy coping techniques. Your therapist may suggest meditation, visualization, journaling, hypnosis, or breathing exercises, depending on what works best for you.

The ABCs of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy

This form of therapy uses the ABC model to help people identify, understand, and challenge negative thoughts and behaviors. “ABC” stands for:

The activating event can be the loss of a loved one, a breakup, or other situations that trigger emotional distress.

The core beliefs refer to the thoughts you have about that particular event. For example, you may think you’re unworthy of love after going through a divorce.

The letter C, which stands for Consequences, describes the emotional response to your beliefs. If you think you’re unworthy of love, you may feel lonely, sad, or depressed.

These guiding principles are meant to help you understand your behavior. After that, you’ll complete two more steps:

The whole point is to dispute any irrational beliefs while adopting new, rational beliefs.

Let’s see an example from Kristian Wilson, a licensed mental health counselor with Grow Therapy:

“Clients also need to be aware that this therapeutic modality will include practice assignments, usually worksheets, that will assist them with continuing their engagement in therapy without needing to attend a session,” says Dr. Arroyo-Carrion, Ph.D. with Grow Therapy “Completing practice assignments will increase the therapeutic benefit.”

Examples of Irrational Beliefs Addressed by Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

One of the primary differences between REBT and other therapies is its focus on irrational thoughts. These are often expressed as absolutes, such as “I can’t,” “I must,” or “I need to.”

Let’s see a few examples: 

Such thoughts and beliefs can be related to our self-image, fears, or personality traits. Some are based on the premise that nothing could be worse than the current situation (e.g., “If I miss my flight, my entire vacation will be ruined, and I’ll never forgive myself”). Others stem from unrealistic expectations of oneself or biases rooted in childhood (e.g., “If I want to succeed in life, I must be the best at everything I do”).

These attitudes can affect your well-being and quality of life. They may also interfere with your work, leading to procrastination and diminished productivity. For example, you may find yourself postponing a project until the last moment because you think you’re not able to handle it.

How Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Can Help

Cognitive restructuring and other REBT techniques can help you develop healthier emotional responses, leading to:

For example, a 2023 study published in the Journal of Medicine found that REBT can boost self-esteem in schoolchildren. As the researchers note, this therapy may also benefit students with social anxiety, withdrawal behavior, and other mental health problems.

In other studies, REBT has been shown to reduce occupational stress and burnout while increasing job satisfaction. Moreover, it may improve mental focus and work performance, helping employees excel in their roles.

Who Can Benefit from REBT?

This type of therapy can benefit people of all ages, from children and adolescents to seniors. “I recommend it for clients who have experienced traumatic events and/or mood-related symptoms, as it will assist them with increasing insight about their presenting problems and the extent of their behaviors,” says Dr. Arroyo-Carrion.

In clinical practice, mental health professionals use REBT for the following conditions:

The effectiveness of rational emotive behavior therapy is backed up by evidence.

In a 2020 study, researchers asked 40 medical students with generalized anxiety disorder to undergo REBT. Their symptoms improved significantly after just eight psychotherapy sessions.

REBT may benefit veterans and other people with PTSD, according to recent evidence presented in Military Psychology. These individuals often blame themselves for the traumatic events they experienced. They may also avoid people, places, or situations they associate with their trauma, which can lead to feelings of isolation and fear.

As the scientists note, REBT may reduce depression and PTSD symptoms by reframing irrational beliefs. Basically, it addresses the root cause of anger, shame, guilt, and other negative emotions, resulting in better mental health.

This form of cognitive therapy can also improve the mental health of athletes. A 2016 review suggests that REBT may help reduce sports performance anxiety, promote unconditional self-acceptance, and reduce self-defeating thoughts, such as “If I lose this match, it means I’m a complete failure, and my career is over.”

“In addition, REBT addresses the importance of practicing self-compassion and extending compassion to other people instead of immediately judging that someone has negative intentions,” explains Dr. Arroyo-Carrion. Therefore, it can help you build a better relationship with yourself and others.

Your Thoughts Shape Your Reality

Rational emotive behavioral therapy can be a powerful catalyst for change. What makes it so effective is its focus on the underlying thoughts and beliefs that shape our perception of reality. For this reason, it’s suitable for clients with or without a mental health disorder.

The first step is finding an REBT specialist. Grow Therapy is home to some of the best mental health providers in the country, so go ahead and browse our platform. Use our search tool to connect with a therapist who specializes in REBT. After that, book a virtual session to discuss your needs and make the changes you want in your life.


  • The ABC model of REBT has three components: an activating (A) event, the thoughts and beliefs (B) associated with it, and the consequences (C) of those beliefs.

  • REBT appeals to people of all ages, from children to middle-aged adults and seniors. It's particularly beneficial for those with anxiety, depression, phobias, PTSD, and stress-related disorders. However, anyone can use it as a tool for improving mental health and well-being.

  • Most individuals require 10 to 20 REBT sessions to get significant results. But, as with any therapy, treatment length depends on the problem you want to address. Some clients see improvements after just five sessions.

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating people dealing with addiction, anxiety, depression, grief, communication problems, and other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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