What Is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), or rational emotive therapy,  is a form of cognitive behavior therapy focusing on changing behavior and thought patterns in clinical psychology. This therapeutic process relies on complete honesty and candor from the rational emotive behavior therapist to help a person with recognizing and disputing irrational beliefs or thoughts and self-defeating thoughts and ultimately change behaviors.
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Irrational fears can make it difficult to function

All humans have fears and doubts, but they aren't always grounded in reality or common sense. For those with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, disproportionate feelings of fear and guilt can be common. These negative underlying beliefs, thoughts, and emotions feel very real to the individual experiencing them and can negatively affect their overall mental health. However, a therapist who employs rational emotive behavioral therapy can sometimes help the person understand the nature of their feelings by reducing irrational beliefs and putting them into the appropriate perspective. 

History of REBT in mental health

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) was coined by psychologist Albert Ellis in the mid-1950s. Formed on his own experiences with psychological problems, this therapy type is based on the idea that underlying thought patterns that create emotional distress or other mental health concerns should be examined and challenged to determine whether they are rational. REBT focuses on looking at rational and irrational beliefs and how to replace irrational thought patterns with new rational beliefs. 

For example, if you were experiencing intense fear of a potentially stressful event such as approaching someone to ask them out on a date, it might help to ask yourself, “What's the worst they can do?” Most likely, the worst that will happen is that they’ll just say no, but the best-case scenario means you’ll have a date. From a rational perspective, the best potential outcome outweighs the negative consequences of the worst-case scenario. 

Is REBT the same as CBT?

The therapy REBT of Albert Ellis focuses on thoughts or beliefs that can end up causing self-destructive behaviors, with the goal of replacing those thoughts with a rational belief or something more positive, ultimately improving one's well-being. In this way, it is similar to cognitive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), like REBT, challenges unhelpful thoughts or thought patterns. The primary distinction between the two lies in the explicit focus of REBT on identifying and challenging irrational beliefs as the key factor in emotional disturbance.

The ABC Model of REBT

REBT has a principle known as the ABC model, which research suggests can be effective in addressing mental health issues. The ABC model is based on Ellis's interpretation of how people engage in thinking about the world. He believed that people's understanding of certain events is what causes psychological distress and emotive behavior and the ABC model explains it. Take care not to confuse it with the other ABC model—the antecedent behavior consequence model— which focuses on examining and shifting components of behavior.

Activating event

In the REBT process, the activating event is often the catalyst for an irrational belief, which can lead to conditions REBT aims to address. For instance, some people have a fear of flying, yet they aren’t afraid to drive a car even though people are statistically more likely to die in auto accidents. Rationally speaking, the fear of flying isn’t proportionate to the danger. However, when plane crashes do happen, they’re likely to be covered in the media, sometimes making the frequency of plane crashes seem greater than they are. This is the activating event of the irrational fear of flying, which can contribute to feeling depressed or anxious or causing a person to have unhealthy thoughts or to take unhealthy actions. 

Beliefs

When someone sees adverse events, such as the plane crash on the news, they may begin to believe that every plane is at high risk of crashing. Eventually, this can lead to the belief that they will likely die if they ride on an airplane. 

Consequence

The consequence is the emotional response to the irrational belief. Because an individual believes that planes are dangerous, they may blame external events to avoid flying whenever possible. If there is no choice, flying can elicit feelings of constant, intense panic. The time leading up to a flight may involve serious mental health distress. It doesn't matter that the odds of dying in a plane crash are one in 11 million while the odds of dying in a car crash are one in 5,000. 

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How REBT may help you

REBT has the potential to help with a variety of symptoms and conditions, including anxiety, depression, grief, and addictive or unhealthy behaviors. One of the ways it does this is by promoting unconditional acceptance so that the individual understands and accepts their irrational and rational beliefs. While each therapist may have their own method of using REBT, here are the basic steps detailing how a REBT session may go:

Step one: Identify your irrational beliefs

In the first session, you will likely identify what irrational beliefs or feelings are the sources of your mental distress. These beliefs likely compel you to do something or not want to do something. "I should" and "I can't" are common conclusions of irrational thoughts and beliefs. A few examples of irrational conclusions include:

  • I must succeed at everything I do, or else I'm useless.
  • I can avoid life's challenges and live a perfect life.
  • I can't control my happiness.
  • Unhealthy eating is the only way to cope with stress and emotions.

Belief in these conclusions may have a negative impact on your self-esteem and can lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety, depression, and more. 

Step two: Challenge your irrational beliefs

Once you identify the irrational beliefs you have, your therapist will likely assist you in examining ways to clear them from your mind. While other therapists tend to help through gentle encouragement and communication, Ellis's approach was to be candid and honest. The therapist may be direct about how irrational your beliefs are and use logic to debunk them. 

Step three: Change your irrational beliefs

While the responsibility for changing your irrational beliefs ultimately lies with you, a therapist using REBT may help you uncover and examine those beliefs and why they don’t serve you. 

Your therapist may help you with the emotional responses that can sprout from irrational beliefs in different ways. Part of your treatment might include practicing meditation and mindfulness exercises, writing your thoughts in a journal, or changing your lifestyle. The therapist may assign you homework to help change your beliefs, encourage you to utilize self-help techniques, and give feedback based on peer-reviewed studies or another helpful report.

REBT example

Nick has severe job-related stress, as he believes he will be fired every day, despite his performance. As a result of his fear, he has poor job satisfaction and is unable to stop obsessing over his work performance. Eventually, he works so hard that it begins to impact his relationships, his daily life, and his mental health. 

He decides to seek therapy and is referred to local therapists who perform group REBT and individual REBT. Based on the reality of the circumstances, REBT teaches Nick the likelihood of losing his job is minimal. His therapist also helps him find ways to cope with the worst-case scenario.

Eventually, Nick is convinced that he is competent without doing the extra work that affects his stress levels and his relationships. From this understanding, he finds healing from his fears and irrational beliefs. 

This example might be applied to any case, such as athletic performance, school performance, or relationship concerns. The core concept typically involves learning more about yourself through your fears and knowing that you can cope in any situation where irrational thoughts may be present. 

How to find an REBT therapist

There are plenty of ways to find an REBT therapist, beginning with referrals from your primary care physician. You can also obtain a list of providers from your insurance company, or you may look online for a licensed mental health professional who utilizes REBT and has both credentials and positive reviews to endorse them. In some cases therapy school students may be trained in REBT from the Albert Ellis Institute, however, this is not a requirement for a therapist to use REBT. 

Some find that the direct nature of REBT can be off-putting at first, so developing a relationship with a compatible therapist may be essential for it to be effective. A good therapist will likely be able to recognize if you are uncomfortable with the tone of the treatment and adjust it accordingly without compromising the process. 

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Irrational fears can make it difficult to function

REBT’s effectiveness may depend on the reason an individual has irrational beliefs. For instance, if you are experiencing mental health concerns related to traumatic external events or a trauma disorder, REBT may do the opposite of what it should. Invalidating a person’s trauma is likely not an effective approach.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

However, for individuals with negative feelings related to expectations or long-held beliefs that may be causing stress, REBT techniques may be helpful. By reducing symptoms of rigidness and fear and creating an action-oriented approach, REBT may decrease irrational beliefs and help clients start exhibiting different behaviors. A systematic review and meta-analysis of fundamental and applied research suggests that REBT is effective for healing anxiety, OCD, and beliefs associated with personality disorders.

Takeaway

If you think you have irrational beliefs, feelings that don't match the reality of your circumstances, or overexaggerated negative emotions, you might try REBT. You can seek therapy from a mental health professional working locally from an office, but many people choose online therapy, which research shows to be just as effective as in-person therapy. Some people may benefit from online behavioral therapies like REBT, CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy, or another type of behavioral therapy, because they have fears of encountering others in a psychologist’s office or other places outside of the house. Online therapy can be helpful for overcoming barriers such as these. 

BetterHelp offers licensed mental health providers for you to speak with from the comfort of your home or anywhere with an internet connection. You can communicate with a therapist via phone, video chat, or in-app messaging. For more information on REBT and other forms of therapy, reach out to BetterHelp today.

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