Imagine a scenario:

You are startled awake to a noise in your kitchen. You begin to wonder what it could be and after some quick thinking you begin to fear the worst. Your instincts are ignited, your mind starts racing for possible explanations and you are likely already planning for a potential threat. You begin planning out how to approach the situation: will you confront it directly? What kind of protection will you bring with you? How do you plan to respond if it’s an intruder? What else could it be?

Now suppose I preface this situation by telling you that you own a cat who is known to wander about and often roams through the kitchen at all hours of the night. Does it change how you respond to the noise?

This is the power of the human mind to take the exact same event (a noise in the night) and turn it into a state of panic (planning to confront an intruder) or a state of relief (cat is home for the night, safe and sound), depending on how we perceive it.

Psychologists have summed this dynamic up in several ways, most of which focus on a three-tier approach: 1) Activating event/Adversity (noise in the night), 2) Belief (must be an intruder OR cat is home safe and sound), and 3) Consequence (panic OR relief).

To sum this up, I will borrow from Albert Ellis’ work on the A-B-C model of events:

Activating Event: Activating events happen constantly, for the purpose of this exercise we will focus on distressing events: being cut-off in traffic, getting caught in a storm, annoyed by your partner, frustrated with a co-worker, forgetting something at home, ignored by a friend, disrespected by your teenager, etc.

B- Belief about that event: Beliefs largely determine what impact the activating event will have. For example, if you’re cut-off in traffic, beliefs can range from “what an arrogant prick, they clearly think they’re more important than everyone else!” to “well we all have places to go, no point in getting worked up over it, besides, they could be in a rush for good reason.”

C-Consequence: The belief of the activating event inevitably shapes the consequences. Suppose the belief about getting cut-off is that you have been personally disrespected and must do something to show them your displeasure. In that case, you are likely going to feel even greater and ongoing agitation. If the belief is that some people's driving styles are more risky and aggressive than yours, but reacting to it only causes you to feel greater distress and accomplish very little, you are more likely to turn your focus to more important and positive things in your life.

The A-B-C model is a wonderful example of how it is not just events that cause distress, but our reaction to them.

This is summed up in the wise proverb: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

Ricky Giesbrecht

Ricky Giesbrecht


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