An Overview of REBT for Treating Social Anxiety Disorder

REBT can be helpful for social anxiety disorder.
REBT can help unravel negative thoughts. Getty / Ikon Images / Gary Waters

Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) developed by Dr. Albert Ellis in the 1950s. It has been shown to be effective in reducing certain types of emotional distress.

The basic premise of REBT is that it is not the events in our lives that cause us to become upset, but rather the beliefs we hold about those life events.

Ellis postulated that we all desire happiness in our lives, whether that entails finding a career we enjoy, having a circle of friends, enriching our education and knowledge or having enough leisure time.

Sometimes in life, however, we are blocked from attaining these goals.

REBT theory states that when we are blocked from our goals to happiness, we either respond in a way that is healthy and helpful, or unhealthy and unhelpful.

How we react is our choice; if we choose unhealthy and unhelpful responses, then will we experience emotional consequences such as depression, anxiety, or anger.

One of the key concepts in REBT is the ABC Model.

  • A = Activating Event (something happens)
  • B = Belief (about the event)
  • C = Consequence (emotional reaction to the belief)

According to REBT, your reaction (C) is the result of your belief (B) and not caused directly by the event (A).

Consider an example with someone who suffers from social anxiety disorder (SAD).

  • A = Someone looks at you with a frown.
  • B = You believe that the person doesn't like you or that you have done something to displease the person.
  • C = You feel anxious and badly about yourself.

    If you aren't sure that your reaction was caused by your belief instead of the event, consider how a change in your belief can lead to a change in the consequence.

    • A = Someone looks at you with a frown.
    • B = You believe the person is having a bad day.
    • C = You feel bad for the person.

    REBT also states that the beliefs that we hold that upset us are generally a variation on the following three commonly held irrational beliefs:

    1. I must do well and win the approval of others or I am worthless.
    2. Other people must treat me fairly or they deserve to be punished.
    3. I must get what I want when I want it, and not get what I don't want, and I can't stand it if I don't.

    The first belief leads to feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt and shame, the second leads to anger, violence and passive aggression, and the third leads to feeling sorry for oneself.

    It is easy to see that people who suffer with SAD generally hold beliefs similar to the first one.

    In order to reduce emotional distress, you must work on changing your irrational and inflexible beliefs. The goal is to adopt new flexible beliefs that lead to healthy behaviors and emotions.

    How Do You Change Your Beliefs?

    If you were receiving therapy from an REBT therapist, he would go through the process of "disputing" your irrational beliefs. This is the fourth part of the ABC Model and refers to challenging your existing beliefs through a series of questions.

    In the case of SAD, your therapist might ask, "Why must everyone like you and approve of you?"

    Stop for a minute and think about your response.

    You might think of things such as "I will feel badly if they don't like me," or "I will never have any friends."

    Your therapist will use additional questions to gradually lead you to the more helpful thought that "It's not the end of the world if everyone doesn't like me."

    As part of REBT, your therapist would also help you to realize three important insights that will help you think more rationally:

    1. You become upset because you are holding on to irrational and inflexible beliefs, not because of external events in your life.
    2. You continue to be upset after life events because you won't let go of these beliefs.
    3. The only way to improve the situation is to change your beliefs; doing so takes practice. Developing this philosophy can take a lifetime.

    In addition, your therapist would have you working towards acceptance in three forms:

    1. Unconditional acceptance of yourself.
    2. Unconditional acceptance of others.
    3. Unconditional acceptance of life experiences.

    In order to develop acceptance in these three areas, your therapist would have you concentrate on the following core beliefs for each:


    1. I have both good and bad points.
    2. I am allowed to have flaws.
    3. Despite my good and bad points, I am no more worthy or less worthy than any other person.


    1. Sometimes other people will not treat me fairly.
    2. There is no law that other people have to treat me fairly all of the time.
    3. People who don't treat me fairly are no more worthy or less worthy than any other person.


    1. Life does not always work out the way that you want.
    2. There is no rule that life has to go the way that you want.
    3. Although life will not always be pleasant, it is never awful or completely unbearable.

    As you can see, people with SAD need to focus most on developing self-acceptance. This can be accomplished through REBT therapy and the disputation process to replace unhelpful and irrational thoughts with more healthy ways of reacting to life events.

    REBT therapy is also often complemented with progressive relaxation techniques and visual imagery to reduce anxious reactions to social and performance situations.


    REBT Network. What is REBT? Accessed February 29, 2016.

    Three Minute Therapy. REBT Therapy. Accessed February 29, 2016.

    Three Minute Therapy. Social Anxiety: To Hug or Not. Accessed February 29, 2016.

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