Using the A-B-C Thought Record

There are truths you have to grow into.

- H.G. Wells

The content of our consciousness changes from moment to moment. Many unplanned cognitive events, including thoughts, images, and memories just pop into mind throughout the day. Some of these cognitive events are "hot" in that they elicit an emotional reaction. Hot thoughts can also result from an external provocation. Because they have such a profound influence on our reactions, we want to rationally evaluate these hot thoughts and the beliefs on which they are based.

The ABC Thought Record is a tool to help you identify your pathogenic beliefs and evaluate their veracity. It is to be used as soon as possible after an incident that evoked a strong emotional state, or an emotional state that was stronger than the situation demanded.

Using the Thought Record

  1. The first column is for your description of the Antecedent Condition — what events led to the Consequent Emotion?

  2. The last column is for the name of the emotion you experienced and how strong it was. Use the 100 point Subjective Units of Discomfort Scale [SUDS].

  3. It is possible that the identical antecedent condition would have elicited a very different emotional reaction from different person. So, there must be a difference between you and that other person. According to the CBT model, a difference in interpretation of the Antecedent Condition is the cause of the difference in emotional reactions. What connects the A to the C is a B that stands for Belief.

    The middle column is where we do our detective work to identify the thought or pathogenic belief that caused an event that happened to trigger the particular reaction that you experienced. The upper portion of the column is a space to list some candidates for the core pathogenic belief. Some suggestions and probes are offered at the bottom of the page.
    • Recall: What thoughts or images went through your mind at the moment that may account for your emotional reaction?
    • How you attribute meaning to things that happen: While reviewing the episode from your current perspective so you can complete the top portion of the middle column, what abstractions do you tend toward?  Ask yourself questions such as: What does antecedent condition X say about me?  What does it mean about my future? How others see me? Etc. Note: We are not looking for the healthy, politically correct belief, but the belief that is causally related to the emotional reaction you experienced.

      After you have answered the questions and probes, and thought through the issues for a while, Identify the belief that is the crux of this issue, so that we may evaluate or test its validity.

Click here to access the Thought Record

Learning about yourself without falling into a recursive trap

You may discover that much of the content of the middle column is focused on yourself or on what other people think about you. That would not be surprising because Ruminative Self-Focus is the primary cause of self-sabotage. However, self-focus is not always bad. Indeed this course requires that you collect information about yourself and how you react so that you can exercise your will.

The acquisition of self-knowledge requires that you accept concrete observations dispassionately, without abstracting — e.g., "What does this mean or say about me?" Once you go beyond the concrete data begin to abstract and judge yourself, you are almost certain to fall into a Recursive Trap.

Meta-Cognitive Tool: The A-B-C Thought Record

To identify the automatic thoughts and pathogenic core beliefs that cause you to feel and act in ways that are counter to your interests, print out the A-B-C Thought Record.

We will use this tool to deconstruct the particular structure of your neurotic trap. A good place to begin is a recent situation in which your emotional reaction was excessive, considering the circumstance.


Use the first column [labeled Antecedent event] to describe the situation that triggered the emotional reaction that you are to name in the third column [labeled Consequent emotion]. You need only name the emotion  — e.g., anger, fear, frustration, and rate its intensity from 1 [very low] to 10 [strongest emotion I've ever experienced].

Now for our detective work to discover the automatic thoughts and ultimately the core belief that turns the antecedent condition into the consequent emotion in your subjective world. To do this research, we will ask several questions, but we are not looking for the logical or "right" answer, but the answer you would have given when you were in the midst of the situation.

Complete the top portion of the middle column to identify the automatic thoughts implicated in the sequence of external and internal events that produces the unwanted emotional reaction.   [you may have to ask some several times to uncover all the auto thoughts and images]:

  • What was going through my mind just before feeling this way?
  • What does it say about me?
  • What does this mean about my life, my future?
  • What am I afraid could happen?
  • What does it mean about how this person (or other people in general} think about me?
  • What does it mean about this other person (or other people in general)?
  • What images or memories does this situation trigger?

Use the bottom portion of the middle column to see if you can deduce the pathogenic core belief that lies at the heart of this neurotic trap. One strategy is to review the list of automatic thoughts and see if one stands out as the crux of this issue. Another approach is to seek the foundation for the automatic thoughts is continue following up the answer to the questions above by asking yourself questions such as: "if this thought is true, what does that mean about, me, the other, or the future?"


Complete this form by composing your hypothesis of the core belief that forms the heart of your neurotic trap.

Note: If you are dealing with depression, anxiety, or chronic anger, it is important that you actually use the Thought Record. Even though it is designed to be useable on your own, without a therapist to help. If, for whatever reason, you would like to work with a clinician on this exercise, the fee is $35. Please call our office (512) 343-8307 to arrange the phone, Skype, or IM session. [There is no fee if you have are a subscriber or an active client of Dr. Dubin.]

Catching and disputing thinking errors

Escaping a neurotic trap is difficult because your perceptions and appraisals are distorted by your emotional state at that moment. Now, in you rational state of mind it is easy to recognize thinking errors. However, when you are experiencing intense depression, anxiety, or other negative emotional state, you will perceive and appraise everything differently than you do now. The same state-dependent distortions that prevented you from thinking clearly in the past will make it difficult for you to recognize the thinking errors when you encounter them next time. The questions below may help you see through the distortions and arrive at a more accurate belief:

  • If a friend had this thought what would I tell them
  • If friend knew I was thinking this thought, what would they say to me? What evidence might they show me that it was not true?
  • When I am not feeling this way, how do I think about this type of situation?
  • What have I learned from previous exposures to this type of situation that can help me now?
  • Five years from now, how will I look at this situation?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions that are not justified by evidence?
  • Am I blaming myself for something I have no control over?

Puppy training

Even though our focus is on thinking, it is the Experiential rather than the Rational Processing System that we must modify. We seek to change how you think rather than what you think. Puppy training —  that is, focus on extensive practice to develop new habits — rather than intellectual insight and understanding is what brings results.

The more practice you get at thinking in a disciplined way, the better. So complete a Thought Record whenever:

  • You experience an emotional reaction that is more intense than the situation demands, .
  • Your emotional state causes you to act counter to your interests and principles.

Ruminative Self-Focus > >

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