What is rational emotive therapy?

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a type of therapy introduced by Albert Ellis in the 1950s. It’s an approach that helps you identify irrational beliefs and negative thought patterns that may lead to emotional or behavioral issues.

Once you’ve identified these patterns, a therapist will help you develop strategies to replace them with more rational thought patterns.

REBT can be particularly helpful for people living with a variety of issues, including:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • addictive behaviors
  • phobias
  • overwhelming feelings of anger, guilt, or rage
  • procrastination
  • disordered eating habits
  • aggression
  • sleep problems

Read on to learn more about REBT, including its core principles and effectiveness.

REBT is grounded in the idea that people generally want to do well in life. For example, you probably want to achieve your goals and find happiness. But sometimes, irrational thoughts and feelings get in the way. These beliefs can influence how you perceive circumstances and events — usually not for the better.

Imagine you’ve texted someone you’ve been dating for a month. You see they’ve read the message, but several hours pass with no reply. By the next day, they still haven’t replied.

You might then:

  • start to think they’re ignoring you because they don’t want to see you
  • worry you did something wrong when you last saw them
  • tell yourself relationships never work out and that you’ll be alone for the rest of your life

Here’s how this example illustrates the core principles — called the ABCs — of REBT:

  • A refers to the (a)ctivating event or situation that triggers a negative reaction or response. In this example, the A is the lack of reply.
  • B refers to the (b)eliefs or irrational thoughts you might have about an event or situation. The B in the example is the belief that they don’t want to see you anymore or that you’ve done something wrong and that you will be alone for the rest of your life.
  • C refers to the (c)onsequences, often the distressing emotions, that result from the irrational thoughts or beliefs. In this example, that might include feelings of worthlessness or not being good enough.

In this scenario, REBT would focus on helping you to reframe how you think about why the person didn’t respond. Maybe they were busy or simply forgot to respond. Or maybe they aren’t interested in meeting you again; if so, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or that you will spend the rest of your life alone.

REBT uses three main types of techniques, which correspond with the ABCs. Each therapist might use a slightly different combination of techniques depending on both their past clinical experiences and your symptoms.

Problem-solving techniques

These strategies can help address the activating event (A).

They often include working to develop:

  • problem-solving skills
  • assertiveness
  • social skills
  • decision-making skills
  • conflict resolution skills

Cognitive restructuring techniques

These strategies help you to change irrational beliefs (B).

They might include:

  • logical or rationalizing techniques
  • guided imagery and visualization
  • reframing, or looking at events in a different way
  • humor and irony
  • exposure to a feared situation
  • disputing irrational thoughts

Coping techniques

Coping techniques can help you better manage the emotional consequences (C) of irrational thoughts.

These coping techniques may include:

  • relaxation
  • hypnosis
  • meditation

Regardless of the techniques they use, your therapist will also likely give you some work to do on your own between sessions. This gives you a chance to apply the skills you learn in a session to your daily lie. For example, they might have you write down how you feel after experiencing something that usually makes you feel anxious and think about how your response made you feel.

There’s some debate among experts about the relationship between REBT and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Some see REBT as a type of CBT, while others argue that they’re two very distinct approaches.

While CBT and REBT are based on similar principles, they have several key differences. Both approaches work to help you accept and change irrational thoughts that cause distress. But REBT places a little more emphasis on the acceptance part.

The creator of REBT refers to this element of treatment as unconditional self-acceptance. This involves trying to avoid self-judgement and recognizing that humans, including you, can and will make mistakes.

REBT is also unique because it sometimes uses humor as a therapeutic tool to help you take things less seriously or look at things differently. This might involve cartoons, humorous songs, or irony.

REBT also makes a point of addressing secondary symptoms, such as becoming anxious about experiencing anxiety or feeling depressed about having depression.

REBT is generally accepted as an effective type of therapy. A 2017 review of 84 published articles on REBT concluded it’s a valid treatment that can help with obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, depression, and disruptive behavior. But the review points out the need for more randomized trials to understand how REBT can help to treat a wider variety of conditions.

A small 2016 study looked at the benefits of regular REBT sessions with a social worker for long-term depression. After a year, the participants made fewer trips to their primary care doctor. The use of prescription medications also decreased. A 2014 study similarly found that REBT may be an effective treatment for depression in young girls.

Keep in mind that people respond differently to all types of therapy. What works for one person may not work for you.

Finding a therapist can be a daunting task. To help streamline the process, start by taking note of specific things you’d like to address in therapy. Are there any specific traits you want your therapist to have? Do you prefer a person of a certain gender?

It might also help to determine how much you can realistically spend per session. Some therapists might not take insurance, but many offer sliding-scale fees or low-cost options. This is a common conversation for a therapist to have with a potential client, so don’t feel uncomfortable asking about cost. Learn more about finding affordable therapy.

If you live in the United States, you can find psychologists in your area here. When calling potential therapists, give them a brief idea of what you’re looking to get out of therapy and ask if they have any experience with REBT. If they sound promising, make an appointment.

Don’t be discouraged if you find that they aren’t a good fit during your first session. Some people need to see a few therapists before they find the right one.

Here are six other questions to ask yourself after that first appointment.

REBT is a type of therapy that can help with a range of mental health conditions. It’s similar to CBT, but there are some key differences between the two. If you’re looking to reframe some of your thought patterns, REBT may be a good approach to try.