Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that aims to help a person challenge unhelpful thoughts to avoid negative emotions or behaviors.

REBT started in 1955 when Dr. Albert Ellis created the therapy as an action-oriented type of CBT.

REBT focuses attention on the present and helps a person develop a new way of thinking about events to prevent maladaptive behaviors and negative emotions.

The approach may help a person achieve their goals and learn how to overcome adversity by addressing the underlying beliefs and thoughts that can lead to self-defeating or self-sabotaging actions.

This article discusses REBT in more detail, including the principles behind it, its effectiveness, and more.

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REBT is a type of CBT that first appeared in the mid-20th century. It is an action-based therapy that requires a person to focus on present events.

The guiding principles of the therapy state that an activating event triggers a person’s irrational thoughts or beliefs. Their beliefs can then result in consequences, including negative emotions or maladaptive behaviors, such as procrastination.

The goal of REBT is to challenge a person’s negative thoughts and beliefs before the person experiences an adverse outcome due to their beliefs. This approach may help a person develop better coping skills and improve their overall quality of life.

Research has shown that REBT can be an effective form of therapy with correct use. A therapist can help a person understand that the activating event does not cause the consequences. Rather, it is the person’s beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about the event that lead to their negative reaction.

When a therapist uses the technique effectively, REBT can help a person realize that they have more control over their reactions than they previously believed, which can lead to an improved quality of life.

REBT operates by altering what therapists often refer to as the ABCs of CBT. The goal is to adjust the negative beliefs associated with an event or action to change the consequences of the actions.

The ABC principles stand for:

  • A refers to an activating situation or event that triggers a negative response or reaction.
  • B refers to the belief or thought about the event that is negative or irrational.
  • C refers to the consequences of the belief or thought, which often include negative emotions or behaviors.

The end goal is to replace irrational beliefs with rational beliefs. In doing so, the consequences of the activating event become positive and constructive.

A therapist following the REBT framework may use one or more techniques to help a person achieve their goals. The central technique is what practitioners call “disputing.”

Therapists can break disputing down into different types, including:

  • Logical disputes: These question the logic of a person’s thinking process.
  • Functional disputes: These question whether the belief will help a person achieve a goal.
  • Philosophical disputes: The person considers whether some pleasure can come anyway despite the negative event.
  • Empirical disputes: The person questions whether the facts of the event are accurate.

In addition to disputing, a therapist may use other techniques, which may include:

  • reframing, or viewing an issue from a different point of view
  • modeling, which means having a person copy the positive response to an event that another individual might present
  • humor
  • encounter exercises
  • therapist’s unconditional acceptance
  • acting on rational beliefs

The main difference between REBT and other forms of CBT is that REBT focuses on irrational thoughts and beliefs, proposing that:

  • Irrational beliefs are extreme, illogical, and rigid.
  • Rational beliefs are logical, flexible, and non-extreme.

Therapists specializing in REBT work to help a person replace the irrational beliefs surrounding an event with rational beliefs.

Research has shown that REBT can be an effective form of therapy.

In a 2017 review, researchers analyzed 50 years’ worth of studies and metadata pertaining to REBT. They conclude that REBT provides a valid intervention for people by helping them restructure how they respond to events.

A 2016 study looked at how REBT could help the mental health of athletes. The authors note that REBT can help an athlete perform better and improve their overall mental health.

Another 2016 study showed that REBT could be an effective tool for social workers. After a year of use, people working with their social workers visited their doctors less frequently and reduced their use of prescription medications.

Although REBT can be an effective therapy, not everyone will respond to it in the same way. Anyone who is finding it ineffective should talk with their therapist or a doctor about other potential options.

When looking for a therapist, the first step often involves defining a person’s goals for therapy. This can help shape what type of therapist or therapy might work best for them.

Once a person can state their general goals, they can start by asking their primary care provider for recommendations. Alternatively, they can search for local providers online or ask their insurance provider to help them find therapists in their network.

In some cases, once a person begins treatment, they may find that the therapist is not the right fit for them. They should feel within their right to keep looking for a therapist with whom they feel more comfortable.

REBT is a type of CBT that focuses on changing the irrational thoughts or beliefs that negatively affect a person’s emotions or behaviors.

Therapists will often challenge or dispute these thoughts to help a person understand how they can change their thinking about events that occur. The idea is that once a person has challenged the belief, they can avoid unwanted or negative consequences.