Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) focuses on identifying a person’s harmful core beliefs about themselves and the world in order to change their maladaptive reactions to triggering situations. When used for anger, a therapist offers clients constructive tools to aid them in determining if these beliefs are justified and warrant negative reactions. This can help them replace an unfavorable response to a trigger with a healthier, more positive one.
What Is Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)?
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) focuses on how one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are connected with each other.1 Based on this, the goal is to teach clients how to get rid of maladaptive patterns by changing their thoughts, allowing for emotional and behavioral improvements to follow.2
REBT theory explains that we all have deeply held core beliefs that guide how we understand the world. Many of our core beliefs are healthy, but some invariably are irrational, or maladaptive. When maladaptive core beliefs are addressed, we can find better mental health. REBT shows clients that they have more control over their emotions than they may think.
The REBT A -> B -> C Model highlights the idealogy that backs sessions. (A)ctivating events call forth (B)eliefs, which lead to emotional and behavioral (C)onsequences. In turn, Cs can end up becoming further activating events.
Rational emotive behavior therapy can be used to treat disorders such as:
- Intermittent explosive disorder
- Oppositional defiant disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Paranoid personality disorder
Can REBT Help With Anger?
While anger can serve a valuable function, often it is misplaced and leads to more pain than benefit. Because REBT techniques are designed to work on emotional and behavioral issues stemming from irrational beliefs, it is perfectly suited to helping people have a more adaptive form of anger.
The DSM-5 does not list ‘anger problems’ as a diagnosable condition. But there are over 30 diagnoses in the DSM-5 that involve anger in some regard, so there is plenty of opportunity to use REBT to alleviate anger problems.3
Albert Ellis identified the core problem in anger management stems from one holding on to the idea that because things are frustrating or unfair, everything is “catastrophic.”4 He urged patients to see that while things can get bad, they are very rarely catastrophic. Instead, we choose to make ourselves miserable by insisting things are worse than they are. Here, REBT’s Irrational Core Beliefs come into play, helping a person determine if the beliefs creating their anger and responses are justified.
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Common REBT Techniques for Anger Management
There are many REBT techniques available for anger management aimed at modifying one’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Doing so can help clients learn healthy ways to respond to situations that trigger anger. Depending on the severity of symptoms, the therapist’s personality, the client’s personality, and additional factors, an REBT therapist may choose to focus on other interventions.
Below are REBT techniques that may be used for anger management:5
Cognitive (Thought) Techniques
- Disputing: A REBT therapist will either use direct challenges or questions to challenge irrational or false beliefs. Because anger so often starts and increases due to false, exaggerated, or otherwise unhelpful beliefs, we need to take the time to challenge our beliefs about the world.
- Rational coping statements: Your therapist may share with you statements that realistically encourage you to reinforce healthy, rational beliefs.
- Modeling: This involves you being asked to identify a person to model your behavior after. Asking yourself how an important figure in your life would respond to a situation can provide behavior to copy in anger-inducing situations. It also offers a moment to reshape your thinking about the circumstance, too.
- Referenting: Your therapist may ask you to list the pros and cons of keeping or changing irrational beliefs. Having this sort of reference can help keep you motivated the next time something goes wrong.
- Rational emotive imagery: Your therapist asks you to imagine a recent time when you experienced unhealthy anger. Once you begin feeling angry again, you’ll be asked to move to a healthier emotional state, such as frustration or displeasure, by using cognitive techniques.
- Forceful coping statements: While rational coping statements can work wonders when repeated, it often helps to make them more forcefully, even yelling them out. “I shall overcome!”
- Humor: If you and your therapist have a good connection, they may playfully tease some of your irrational beliefs to show you how unimportant and burdensome they really are. “You got picked last for kickball? So what, kickball is just fake baseball!”
- Unconditional acceptance by the therapist: At times, you may become enraged in the presence of your therapist. If this happens, you can expect nothing but caring acceptance. This reinforces the idea that you are not your beliefs, emotions, or actions. You are worth the effort to make changes.
- Paradoxical homework: It can be fun and enlightening to be asked to purposefully make yourself angry at situations that absolutely do not call for it. For example, forcing yourself to be enraged at your favorite comedy can show you how you create unnecessary problems.
- In vivo desensitization: Your therapist wants you to know that avoiding situations that make you angry isn’t going to solve your issues. By safely exploring such situations, you can learn that it really is irrational beliefs that are causing your pain. Thus, you can learn to resist the urge to feed into those beliefs at triggering times.
Examples of REBT for Anger
The following are examples of REBT in action for disorders that can cause anger in people.
REBT For Major Depressive Disorder
Major depressive disorder is what people typically think of as depression. Fundamentally, depression is characterized by at least two weeks of a depressed mood, a loss of pleasure from formerly enjoyable activities (anhedonia), or both. A depressed mood sometimes shows up as irritability, intense frustration, and outbursts of anger. This is especially noted in children and teenagers.
For a therapist coming from an REBT perspective, the idea is to understand what the patient is assessing so negatively. Doing so allows the client to uncover the irrational beliefs that are supporting or leading to that judgment. For example, many people may become depressed from the loss of a significant relationship, such as a romantic partner. Heartbroken people may have rather intense thoughts of blame, such as “I’m such an idiot,” “Why can’t I ever get it right,” etc. These beliefs come from irrational core beliefs of being “unloveable” or underserving of affection.
Below are steps used by REBT therapists for treating major depressive disorder:
- Verbalizing beliefs: A REBT therapist will first ask a client to verbalize negative beliefs. Next, they will begin the work of disputation and getting a series of rebuttals ready at hand for these feelings. The client will examine each of these beliefs as the therapist offers realistic assessments of how accurate they are. As they get acclimated to the process, the patient is likely to accept some of the rational replacements.
- Reality testing: As the REBT process moves forward, a therapist may also invite the patient to do some reality testing. The client goes out into the world and tries embracing healthier beliefs to take note of the results. Other cognitive interventions, such as referenting and coping statements, usually dovetail very well with this part of the process.
- Building a client-therapist relationship: After a few sessions, the client may start to feel some relief. The results will be much more stable if the client-therapist relationship is built with emotive tools such as unconditional positive regard, humor, and forceful coping statements for really tough days.
- Individual work: As REBT sessions continue, the client is encouraged to practice on their own for a few weeks. If the patient and therapist agree progress is happening, it would be prudent to suggest some in vivo work to help solidify early gains.
- Lessening sessions: As the client begins to think more clearly and replace maladaptive beliefs, their self-regard increases. This cascades into you gaining the courage to rationally believe that you can have wonderful future connections with people. If after twelve weeks, the client and therapist are satisfied with the client’s ability to maintain improvements, the therapist may decrease sessions or move to another issue.
REBT For BPD
REBT for borderline personality disorder (BPD) should start with neutral, accurate descriptions of reality. While depression and other mood disorders are painful and debilitating, they tend to respond to treatment more rapidly than personality disorders. In fact, while the basic formula for treating BPD would be fairly similar to the treatment of depression, the same timeline would not apply.
Personality disorders are lifelong conditions. The goal of REBT is not complete elimination of the disorder, but significant improvement and management of symptoms. This is done by the development and repeated reinforcement of skills needed to maintain the gains brought by therapy. There will be flare-ups, but REBT can leave you well-prepared to deal with them.
The core theme of BPD is a foreboding sense of abandonment, leading to intense attempts to avoid it. The terror of abandonment is so strong that it tends to lead to behaviors that become intolerable to others, including inappropriately intense anger or borderline rage. This tragically leads to exactly the abandonment the person was trying to avoid.6 Another major component of BPD is impulsive behavior that can be self-damaging, such as unhealthy sexual activity or substance use.
Is REBT Effective for Anger Management?
Albert Ellis argued in his scholarly work that REBT works for anger issues related to BPD. Current REBT practitioners continue to make the same case, stating that its concepts and philosophy fit very well in treating these issues.7,8 However, recent research found that dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is an excellent treatment option, particularly for severe cases. Although REBT has not been researched as widely as DBT, both DBT and REBT are cognitive therapies, thus there are plenty of similarities between them.9,10