Academic journal article Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies

An Analysis of the Relationship between Irrational Beliefs and Automatic Thoughts in Predicting Distress

Academic journal article Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies

An Analysis of the Relationship between Irrational Beliefs and Automatic Thoughts in Predicting Distress

Article excerpt


The present study examined the relationship between irrational beliefs and automatic thoughts in predicting distress (i.e., depressed mood in patients with major depressive disorder). Although both constructs have been hypothesized and found to predict emotional reactions in stressful situations, the relationships between these two types of cognitions in predicting distress has not been sufficiently addressed in empirical studies. Our results show that both irrational beliefs and automatic thoughts are related to distress (i.e., depression/depressed mood), and that the effects of irrational beliefs on distress are partially mediated by automatic thoughts.

Key words: irrational beliefs, automatic thoughts, distress, depression/depressed mood.


Over the past few decades, cognitive models of psychopathology have achieved a prominent position in the literature, shaping our understanding of the nature, assessment, and treatment of emotional disturbance. The role of cognitions as maintaining, predisposing or as causal factors in a number of disorders has captured the interest of researchers, clinicians, and the lay public resulting in a proliferation of experimental publications and the development of treatment approaches designed to alter cognitive contents or processes hypothesized to be pathogenic (Olioff, Bryson, & Wadden, 1989). Indeed, there is evidence that cognitive-behavioral approaches are among the best empirically supported, in terms of theory, conceptual understanding and intervention, for a wide variety of emotional disorders (David & Szentagotai, 2006).

Essentially, cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) are based on Albert Ellis' ABC model of distress (Ellis, 1962). According to this model, people experience undesirable activating events (A), about which they have distorted (dysfunctional/irrational) or undistorted (functional/rational) beliefs/cognitions (B). These beliefs then lead to dysfunctional or functional emotional, behavioral, and cognitive consequences. However, in their attempt to explain psychopathology, various professionals have ascribed greater importance to particular types of cognition, without necessarily excluding others, resulting in the creation of several schools around these crucial types of cognitions. For example, while cognitive therapy (CT) is organized around the concepts of automatic thoughts and intermediary/core beliefs (i.e., schemas), rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is organized around the concepts of rational and irrational beliefs (David & Szentagotai, 2006). Although these two models have been extensively discussed and theoretically compared in the literature (Ellis, 2005; Padesky & Beck, 2003), few attempts have been made to empirically explore the relationships between the types of cognitions that are at their core. The current article is intended to make a step in this direction by analyzing the relationship between irrational beliefs and automatic thoughts.

Automatic thoughts - the CT model of emotional disorders

The CT model of emotional disorders, as hypothesized by Beck (1976), maintains that people have stable cognitive patterns (i.e., core beliefs) that develop as a consequence of early learning, most often in the family of origin. If dysfunctional, these patterns lead them to distorted interpretations regarding specific life events (i.e., intermediary beliefs and automatic thoughts), disordered mood and disordered behavior. Beck's theory postulates that each type of emotional disturbance is related to a unique cognitive profile characterized by a specific content (cognitive-content specificity hypothesis; Beck, 1976). For example, in depression, automatic thoughts and images of loss, failure, personal worthlessness, and incompetence dominate the stream of consciousness, while in anxiety automatic cognitions involve anticipation of harm or danger to the personal domain (Clark, Beck, & Brown, 1989; Clark, Beck, & Stewart, 1990). …

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