During rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), patients identify and challenge unhealthy beliefs. Learn how this method works and which mental illnesses it can treat.

A common adage says that it’s not what happens to a person, but the way they respond to their situation that counts. In a sense, that is the principle behind rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). Stressful situations and traumatic events are sometimes an inevitable part of life. However, with proper help, people can learn to react and adjust to such situations in a positive, healthy way.

What Is REBT?

REBT is a type of psychotherapy or talk therapy similar to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Therapists work with patients to identify the reasons they feel the emotions they do and help them develop better thought patterns that will lead to healthier emotions.

REBT operates on the idea that ingrained thoughts and beliefs give rise to feelings and emotions. Emotions are the result of the way that people think in response to an event or situation, rather than the event itself being the direct cause of the emotions. By learning to analyze and adjust their thinking patterns, patients can manage the way they feel when they encounter these situations.

History of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

REBT is one of the earliest forms of psychotherapy. It was founded in the 1950s by the revolutionary psychologist Albert Ellis. Early in his career, Dr. Ellis began questioning the traditional methods of psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud. He felt that while discussing feelings with patients could help them feel better temporarily, the traditional methods he was taught failed to get to the root of his patients’ problems.

Dr. Ellis created a method of psychotherapy that could identify the ingrained belief systems that caused the emotions his patients felt. He first presented his ideas in 1956, which at the time he simply called “rational emotive therapy.” His methods were quickly adopted by other therapists, who found them to be very successful. These methods later gave rise to CBT, which is also widely used today.

How REBT Works

Everybody has ingrained beliefs and idea systems that affect how they view the world. Some of these thoughts may be irrational and are inconsistent with other beliefs and knowledge the person holds. Irrational and even harmful beliefs, often subconscious, can cause people distress and lead to negative emotions. For example, someone may feel nervous talking to new people because they are afraid of being judged harshly, even though they know that most people are compassionate.

During REBT sessions, therapists work with their patients to identify irrational thoughts they may have. Often, people may not realize that they have these conflicting beliefs until they uncover them with a trained therapist. When they experience a stressful situation and feel negative emotions, patients try to identify the thoughts are that are making them feel that way. By challenging these beliefs, patients can learn to change their thought patterns and interpret events in a healthier manner.

The A-B-C Model

In the principle of REBT, the way a person interprets an event determines how they react to it. Dr. Ellis developed what he called the “ABC model” to explain how thoughts and beliefs influence responses to these events.

  • Activating Event: An event or situation occurs
  • Beliefs: A person holds specific beliefs about the event that happened
  • Consequence: The belief triggers an emotional response

Techniques Used in REBT

Therapists meet with patients for routine counseling to help them learn REBT techniques. Patients learn to analyze their own thoughts and reactions and to identify which of their beliefs may be causing emotional distress. There is a several part process that they go through:

  • Identifying Irrational Beliefs: Therapists talk with their patients to uncover any beliefs they hold that are inconsistent with reality or other beliefs
  • Challenging Irrational Beliefs: Patients learn to question whether their ingrained or irrational beliefs are valid
  • Gaining Insight and Analysis: Patients learn to identify which of their thoughts lead to negative emotions, and how to determine whether they make logical sense
  • Replacing Negative Beliefs with Positive Beliefs: When a negative belief causing emotional distress is identified as irrational, patients learn to think different thoughts which eventually replace the negative belief with a rational, healthy one

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy vs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Rational emotive behavior therapy shares many components of cognitive behavioral therapy and the difference between them is subtle. In REBT, the focus is on identifying negative beliefs and replacing them with positive ones. CBT is similar in that it works by identifying thought and behavior patterns that are unhealthy and replacing them with ones that are healthier. In CBT, however, the focus is more on the behaviors that come from negative thought patterns, rather than the emotions felt because of negative beliefs.

Goals of REBT

The goal of rational emotive behavior therapy is to encourage healthy thought patterns that allow people to manage their reactions to triggering events. Patients benefit from obtaining a new set of healthy beliefs to work from. By learning to challenge their ingrained beliefs, patients ideally can identify the sources of their unpleasant feelings in the future and determine what belief or idea they should change to respond in a healthier way.

REBT in Mental Health Treatment

REBT can be used to successfully treat a wide range of mental illnesses. Usually, patients attend short-term therapy, consisting of a few weekly or monthly sessions, during which time they learn to use REBT techniques themselves. This can help manage negative emotions that occur as a part of many mental disorders.

The types of conditions REBT can be used for include:

Mental illnesses frequently co-occur with substance use disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental health condition along with an addiction, specialized help is always available. Contact The Recovery Village today to learn what resources are available to you.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Anna Pickering, PhD
Dr. Anna Pickering has a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology. Anna works as a medical writer. She grew up in Oregon, where she developed a love for science, nature, and writing. Read more

Psychology Today. “Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.” Accessed May 20, 2019.

Ellis DJ, Rovira M. “Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy: Th[…]tion of a Revolution.” Europe’s Journal of Psychology, February 27, 2015. Accessed May 20, 2019.

David D, Cotet C, Matu S, Mogoase C, Stefan S. “50 years of rational-emotive and cogniti[…]ew and meta-analysis.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, September 12, 2017. Accessed May 20, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.