ABC model to help manage stress | Education Support
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Managing stress - teachers and education staff

ABC model to help manage stress

The ABC Cognitive Behavioural Tool is a useful model which can help teachers and education staff to work out what we are telling ourselves that feels life threatening when we get stressed or have emotional responses like anger, frustration and irritation.

The physical and emotional responses that we experience due to stress or other strong emotions are within our control to change as they are dictated by the messages we tell ourselves and often we are not even conscious about what these are.

When we get emotionally triggered i.e. when we get stressed our amygdala, our older brain is activated, and our prefrontal cortex (our rational newer brain) shuts down. Our amygdala is the area that is a bit like our alarm system. It responds to emotional triggers as serious threats to our survival almost as if there is a tiger about to eat us (as would have been a threat to our ancestors).  

We produce cortisol and adrenaline that gets us ready to fight or to take flight. If we produce too much then we freeze (this is the body’s attempt to stop us feeling pain if we feel we cannot avoid the threat). When we get emotionally triggered our amygdala speaks directly to our hippocampus which is the part of our brain that holds our memories and past experiences.  

If a colleague shouts at us and we feel upset, we are not just responding to the here and now. It is likely that we are responding to other times when we have been shouted at, what it brings up for us about how we feel about ourselves and a whole host of other baggage.  

Responding in flight, fight or freeze mode is not helpful unless we are under proper threat. At work we are rarely in danger and what we need to operate effectively is our prefrontal cortex (rational brain). This allows us to think clearly, use data to make decisions, not be clouded by our past experiences, be empathetic, see other’s views, ask open questions, not make judgements, listen, and a whole host of other important functions. When our amygdala is activated we should metaphorically go home as we are not responding just to the current situation.

The ABC Cognitive Behavioural Tool is a useful model which can help teachers and education staff to work out what we are telling ourselves that feels life threatening when we get stressed or have emotional responses like anger, frustration and irritation i.e. when we are emotionally triggered.  It is a useful tool for regulating our emotions and stopping our flight, fight and freeze responses when they are not warranted.

Example of an ABC for someone who is stressed about lesson observation

A: Activating event  Planning a lesson and having it observed by a senior teacher
B: Beliefs and assumptions we make about life that cause us to produce adrenaline and cortisol.  This is often the result of our internal voice i.e. the things we tell ourselves often that we are not even aware exists.

I am rubbish at teaching maths lessons, especially when I am being watched.  If I get nervous the children will start acting up and I will not be able to control them.  The last one I did was terrible and my phase leader is going to be disappointed and think I am useless.  If this happens then they may think I cannot do my job and get rid of me.  Then I will have failed because I am a failure

C: Consequences i.e. our physical, emotional and behavioural responses to the Activating Event caused by our beliefs and assumptions. These are the result of us producing adrenaline and cortisol

Physical consequences

I feel sick, am sweating and have an accelerated heartbeat.

Emotional consequences

I feel stressed and worried.

Behavioural consequences

I go out with friends and get drunk to not think about the observation and then I do not prepare.


Your ABC

Select an example where you have been stressed.  Work through your ABC using the table below. It can be good to do this with a friend or colleague.  You can also use this for other emotional responses like anger, moods or frustration. Notice the ABC has been switched to ACB as it is easier to work out this way.

  • Activating event: Think of 1 example where you were stressed or another emotional state like anger
  • Consequences: What were your emotional, physical and behavioural responses (see model above for examples)?
  • Beliefs and assumptions: What were you telling yourself or what beliefs were in place that are causing your responses to stress?  

Re-scripting your internal self-talk

Another useful tool is to create a positive script that you tell yourself to counter the beliefs and assumptions that you are telling yourself that causes you to believe something is life threatening and so produce adrenaline and cortisol.

E.g. when you next feel stressed about a heavy work load start telling yourself:

  • I know I am telling myself something terrible as I am producing adrenaline and cortisol. This is not rational.
  • I do have control over my work and I know that I do a really good job
  • I can think about what I need to do, see when I can fit it in and if I cannot do it all then I can speak to my headteacher 
  • I know that I am good at planning and prioritising and if I do this there is no reason for me to be stressed
  • I am going to put it all down on paper and see if it fits and if not, I will do something about it.
  • I do not have to be superhuman

How can you rescript your internal self-talk into a positive script to help manage stress using your example above?

What can you do?