Behavioral Chain Analysis: A CBT Tool
Background on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of treatment that includes improving emotions by examining both thoughts and behaviors, based on the idea that thoughts and behaviors influence emotions. It is a common intervention used in conjunction with medications for mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. People with these affective disorders benefit from finding new ways to think rationally and improve their moods and behaviors.
The basic belief is that situations do not create thoughts—people can choose what to think in any situation. Rather, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all influenced by each other regardless of the situation.
What Is a Behavior Chain?
A behavior chain is a way of looking at how a person gets to a behavior from a succession of thoughts, feelings, and decisions to act. Examining a behavior chain is one of the best ways to explain why people act the way they do and look for opportunities for positive changes to improve behaviors.
Both CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) use the powerful tool of behavior chain analysis to examine how a person's thoughts lead to harmful or resilient behaviors when a person is facing a challenging situation.
In order to examine thoughts and behaviors, it's important to know the difference between a thought and a feeling. A thought is what one says inside one's head. Thoughts include ideas, beliefs, self-talk, etc. Emotions include the neural and bodily responses one has. Emotions include feelings such as fear, anger, disgust, joy, and sadness.
The Differences Between Thoughts and Feelings
What you say to yourself in your mind
Includes self talk, interpretations, and meanings we give to situations
Can come and go rapidly or, sometimes, for no reason at all
Can be automatic and can be influenced by our culture and past experiences
Are based on our thoughts
Help us to make sense of the world around us
Help us respond to situations—sometimes, in a healthy way.
Example: "I am not good enough."
Example: Feeling ashamed, hopeless, sad, or lonely
Example of a Behavior Chain
Humans are complex creatures capable of having many feelings and thoughts, both which lead a person to make decisions and behave in certain ways. Knowing how to change unhealthy thoughts is one of the best ways to change unhealthy behaviors.
Here is an example of how someone might end up hurting himself/herself. It starts with a situation that leads to a thought. That thought leads to a feeling, that ultimately leads to a behavior.
Situation —> Thought —> Feeling —> Behavior
Example of a Negative Behavioral Chain
Failing math class
"I can't do anything right. It's no use. I'll never graduate."
Helpless, hopeless, and ashamed
Take a bunch of pills
Situations Don't Cause Thoughts
In the example above, it is clear that the situation led to the thought, but it did not create the thought. Although it would be tempting to say that situations create thoughts, people have a choice of what to think about their situations. This is why some people can have positive thoughts about certain kinds of music while others have negative thoughts when listening to the same type of music. Everyone has unique thought reactions. Likewise, everyone can work to change those reactions and habits of thought.
Catching, challenging, and changing your negative or irrational thoughts is one of the best ways to cut the behavioral chain and prevent the formation of negative feelings that lead to unhealthy behaviors.
Some behaviors are helpful and healthy, and others are destructive and unhealthy. Unhealthy or destructive behaviors can come from unhealthy or destructive thoughts no matter what the situation is. Below is a situation. For practice, come up with some healthy and unhealthy thoughts a person might have in that situation.
Create Your Own Beharioral Chain
- Create your own behavioral chain based on a difficult situation you have faced that resulted in a behavior with a negative outcome.
- Sometimes, it is easier to work backward from a negative or harmful behavior. Identify what you felt just before you did what you did, what thoughts you had before the feelings came, and what situation led to those thoughts.
- Using the same situation, create another behavioral chain identifying positive or rational thoughts you could have had.
- Then, identify feelings you would have based on those positive and rational thoughts
- Finally, identify the behavior you would have based on those positive thoughts and feelings.
- You will have two chains coming from the same situation: one positive chain and one negative chain.
Example: Your Significant Other Just Broke Up With You.
Rational and Healthy Thoughts
Irrational and Unhealthy Thoughts
ex. There are other people I could ask out.
ex. No one cares about me.
ex. It is his/her decision.
ex. I can make him/her like me.
Follow-up Questions About Behavior Chains
These are some follow-up questions to ask after completing a behavior chain for yourself. These can be discussed in a group format.
- What factors contribute to the way people behave?
- How much control do people have over their behaviors?
- How important are a person’s thoughts to his/her well-being?
- What can a person do to build a habit of more positive and healthy thoughts?