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The A-B-C Cycle

An introduction to the Antecedents-Behaviours-Consequences Cycle that explains what drives our behaviour.
Letters A B C sculpted in wood
© University of York

The A-B-C Cycle

Take a moment to think about your day, or your week. What have you been doing? Anything you meant to do, but you avoided it, put it off, or didn’t manage to do it? Were there times when you did “nothing”?

Even when you thought you were doing “nothing”, in fact, you did “something”: lying in bed, or staring out of the window, or daydreaming, or ruminating (thinking about something over and over again).

What we do, or don’t do, is summed up with the term “behaviour”.

Generally, our behaviour is driven by lots of different factors, for example routines we have developed around family and work responsibilities, looking after our health and wellbeing, and our preferences for spending our free time. Some behaviours are habitual – we do them without realising or without having to think about them at a certain day and time. Other behaviours are the result of conscious decisions we make, or goals we want to achieve.

What drives us to do something or avoid it? Most importantly, what drives us to keep doing something or keep avoiding it?

A cartoon walks through a door…

  • Through the first door, our cartoon meets someone who gives them a treasure chest (reward).
  • Through the second door, our cartoon meets someone who gives them a kick (pain).
  • Through the third door, our cartoon meets someone who has a magic spell that gives relief from pain but only as long as the cartoon remains by that door (pain relief).
  • Through the fourth door, our cartoon meets nobody and gets nothing (absence of reward).

Which doors is our cartoon likely to go through again? Which doors is our cartoon likely to avoid, or not bother going through again?

The point of the story is that the consequences of what we do (reward, pain, pain-relief or reward-absence) drive whether we are likely to do this again or avoid this. Our cartoon is likely to want to walk happily through the first door, avoid the second, use the third if needed, and not bother with the fourth.

Bringing it all together and applying it to depression

The Antecedents-Behaviours-Consequences, or A-B-C, Cycle can help us understand:

  • What maintains unhelpful behaviours that feed into depression.
  • How we can change unhelpful behaviours into more helpful ones to improve depression.

In the next few steps, we will look at the As, Bs and Cs in more detail and elaborate on the application of the A-B-C Cycle for depression.

Over to you

Over the last week, think of one thing that:

  • You did because you expected it to be enjoyable and fulfilling (reward).
  • You avoided because you expected it to be stressful, uncomfortable, difficult or scary (pain).
  • You did to stop something unpleasant from happening (relief)
  • You put off doing because you expected it to be tedious, boring and pointless (absence of reward).

One example could be preparing a large meal. You may have done it because you enjoyed cooking (reward) or because you argued with your partner about whose turn it was to cook (to stop unpleasantness). On the contrary, you may have NOT done it because it would have been stressful or you were too tired (pain), or because you don’t enjoy cooking (absence of reward).

© University of York
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Introduction to Behavioural Activation for Depression

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