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The ABCs of Emotions

An emotion is more than a feeling.

Key points

  • Emotions are complex mental states.
  • Emotions have three basic components: bodily arousal, cognitions, and behaviors.
  • The ABCs of emotions refer to activating events, beliefs, and emotional consequences.
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Many people think that thoughts and feelings are entirely separate things—that thoughts are products of the mind and emotions stem from the “heart,” or maybe the gut. This romanticized way of thinking about thoughts and feelings misses the mark, as thoughts and feelings are intimately linked, more like two sides of the same coin. Anger requires an object to be angry about; to be fearful is to be afraid of something; and to be sad is to be unhappy about something, usually about ourselves or our life situation. Thoughts drive emotions and become untethered without them.

3 Basic Components of Emotions

Psychologists recognize that emotions are more than simple feeling states. They are complex mental states comprising three basic components:

  1. A bodily component in the form of central nervous system arousal, as when you experience your heart go aflutter in the presence of a love interest or when you tremble in fear.
  2. A cognitive component, which includes the subjective feeling of the emotion, which we label as fear, love, joy, anger, and so on, as well the judgments we make about our life experiences that trigger emotional reactions (back to this in a moment).
  3. The behavioral component, the third "side" of the emotional coin, is the outward expression of an emotion in overt behavior, such as smiling when happy or approaching someone we love or moving away from a feared object or situation.

Thoughts as Emotion Triggers

This leads us to back to thoughts as triggers for emotions. The thoughts running through your mind are expressed by an inner voice or stream of thought. Thought itself is a form of inner speech, as we think in words that we voice silently to ourselves. This inner speech is the linchpin of our emotional reactions to daily experiences. Thinking negative thoughts in the face of disappointing life events brings us down; thinking angering thoughts when we believe we have been unfairly treated gets us hot under the collar; and thinking fearful thoughts when we perceive a physical or psychological threat (think of a potential rejection or impending failure) makes us quiver with fear or anxiety.

The ABCs of Emotions

Cognitive-behavioral therapy rests on the principle that our thoughts have a determining effect on our emotional states. Let me explain using a simplified ABC model, as proposed by psychologist Albert Ellis. The "A" stands for an activating event that sets the stage for an emotional response. The "B" stands for beliefs or judgments we make about the event, and the "C" represents the emotional consequences, such as anger, anxiety, sadness, guilt, worry, or for positive events, perhaps joy or happiness.

When you experience a negative event, such as receiving a poor evaluation at work, you may feel sad or down about it. You’re likely to assume it is the event itself (the A), such as getting a poor evaluation, that directly causes your negative feelings, as the two are linked closely together in time. What often goes overlooked is how the event is filtered through a set of underlying beliefs. In this scenario, it is how we interpret life events that colors our emotional reactions. We can diagram this model as follows:

A (activating event) ⇒ Beliefs ⇒ Consequences

It is understandable to view a bad evaluation as an upsetting, disappointing experience, and to feel upset or disappointed, at least for a time. But, and it’s a big but, transforming a setback into a disaster can lead to feelings of demoralization or even despair. The emotional consequence (C) isn't the direct result of the A (activating event) itself, but of the exaggerated or catastrophizing way of thinking (the B) that cognitive-behavioral therapists call a cognitive distortion.

The lesson here is that events in themselves do not have the power to cause emotional reactions. Events just happen. Our emotional reactions to events depend on the meaning we read into them. In other words, life experiences are filtered through our belief systems that, in turn, trigger our emotional responses. Someone who insults or criticizes you may be a lout or a bully, but their words do not make you angry. No, dear reader, you make yourself angry based on what you tell yourself about what another person says or does. Recall the early life lesson you may have learned about how “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt (or break) you.” Nor does a setback or disappointment make you depressed without you obliging it in some way. We all face disappointment and sadness in life and need to deal with it but not amplify it to a point that it overtakes our lives.

“Stuff" happens in life, but experiences are filtered through the thinking brain before emotions kick in. In other words, how a given event affects us depends on the meaning or interpretation we impose on it. A case in point: The same event—a pregnancy, for example—may be experienced as either a joyous or a calamitous event depending on whether it is something welcomed or dreaded—that is, what it means to the individual given their life situation.

The CBT Approach

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, we work with patients to identify the particular triggering thoughts that make them feel anxious, fearful, depressed, guilty, worried, or angry, and then examine how these thoughts relate to their underlying beliefs, assumptions, and judgments about themselves and the world around them. We ferret out distorted ways of thinking and decipher patterns of thought that underlie negative emotional states, connecting them with habits of mind learned earlier in life that tend to keep replaying over and over again in the person’s head, like a broken record. The good news is that we can learn to identify, challenge, and replace negative thoughts, so that we can better control how we respond to whatever life dishes out.

An important goal of therapy in general is to learn to control what we can—our judgments and beliefs and what we do with our lives—and let go of the rest. This was a lesson taught by the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome that resonates today in the therapist’s consulting room. For that matter, learning to separate what we can control and what we can’t is an important life lesson for us all.

General Disclaimer: The content here and in other blog posts on the Minute Therapist is intended for informational purposes only and not for diagnosis, evaluation, or treatment of mental health disorders. If you are concerned about your emotional well-being or experiencing any significant mental health problems, I encourage you to consult a licensed mental health professional in your area for a thorough evaluation.

(c) 2022 Jeffrey S. Nevid


Ellis, A. (1977). The Basic Clinical Theory of Rational-Emotive Therapy. In A. Ellis & R. Grieger (Eds.), Handbook of Rational-Emotive Therapy (pp. 3–34). New York, NY: Springer.

Oltean, H.R., Hyland, P., Vallieres, F., David, D.O. (2017). An Empirical Assessment of REBT Models of Psychopathology and Psychological Health in the Prediction of Anxiety and Depression Symptoms. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 45(6), 600-615.

Sarracino, D., Dimaggio, G., Ibrahim, R., Popolo, R., Sassaroli, S., Ruggiero, G.M. (2017). When REBT Goes Difficult: Applying ABC-DEF to Personality Disorders. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 35(3), 278-295.

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