Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Tool: Behavioral Chain

Use the behavioral chain to trace backwards from harmful or destructive behaviors to distressing situations.
Use the behavioral chain to trace backwards from harmful or destructive behaviors to distressing situations.

Background on CBT and DBT

CBT is a form of cognitive talk therapy that includes looking for irrational thought patterns that negatively effect emotions. CBT is a common form of treatment to be used in conjunction with medications for depression and other mood disorders such as bipolar disorder. People with these affective disorders benefit from finding new ways to think rationally and improve moods and behaviors.

The basic premise in CBT is that situations do not CAUSE thoughts, and that people can choose what to think about situations. Therefore, situations do not cause feelings and behaviors, thoughts do.

DBT is a spin-off form of CBT that adds some eastern philosophy that a person can be mindful of his or her thoughts, feelings, and surroundings in order to manage responses to challenges in productive and safe ways. Marsha Linehan, a person who recovered from Borderline Personality Disorder, developed DBT as a means to heal herself and continued on as a mental health professional helping others in the same way. Because of the CBT infusion into DBT, behavioral chains are a crucial piece of understanding how DBT works.

What is a Behavior Chain?

A behavior chain is a way of looking at how a person gets to a behavior through 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 chaining to examine how a person's thoughts lead to harmful behaviors or resilient behaviors when a person is facing a challenging situation.

The Difference Between Thoughts and Feelings

Thoughts
Feelings
What you say to yourself in your mind
Emotional reactions
Include self talk, interpretations, and meaning we give to situations
Can come and go rapidly based on our thoughts or sometimes for no reason at all.
Can be automatic and are influenced by our culture and past experiences
Are based on our thoughts
Help us to make sense of the world around us
Help use to respond to situations, sometimes in healthy ways.
Example: "I am not good enough."
Examples: "ashamed, hopeless, sad, lonely"
Use these characteristics to help you distinguish between thoughts and feelings. This is an important part of understanding how the behavior chain works.

Example of a Behavior Chain

Humans are complex creatures capable of having many feelings and thoughts. The thoughts and feelings that a person has 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 him/herself. It starts with a situation which leads to a thought, which leads to a feeling, which leads to a behavior.

Situation ---> Thought ---> Feeling ---> Behavior

Negative Thought Example

Situation
Thought
Feeling
Behavior
Depressed and failing math class.
"I can't do anything right. It's no use. I'll never graduate."
Helpless, Hopeless, Ashamed
Take a bunch of pills

Situations Don't Cause Thoughts

In the example above it is clear that the situation lead to the thought, but it did not cause the thought. Although it would be tempting to say that situations cause thoughts, it is actually your choice what you want to think about a situation.

Catching, challenging and changing your negative or irrational thoughts is one of the best ways to prevent the negative thoughts that lead to negative feelings and 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.

What Causes Thoughts

Do you think situations cause our thoughts?

See results without voting

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
1.
1.
2.
2.
3.
3.
4.
4.
5.
5.

Create Your Own Beharioral Chain

Directions: 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 backwards from a negative or harmful behavior identifying 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.

Then create another behavioral chain identifying positive or rational thoughts you could have for the same situation. Then identify feelings you would have based on positive and rational thoughts, and identify the behavior you would have based on those better thoughts and feelings. You will have two chains coming from the same situation. One positive chain, and one negative chain.

Behavior Chain Practice

Using the same situation to examine the outcome of an irrational thought vs. a rational thought will demonstrate the power of positive thinking.
Using the same situation to examine the outcome of an irrational thought vs. a rational thought will demonstrate the power of positive thinking.

Best Way to Change Behaviors

What is the best part of the behavior chain to change?

See results without voting

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?

Behavior Chain for Use in Alcoholism Treatment

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Comments 2 comments

ChristopherC 16 months ago

Your posting has some significant theoretical problems. DBT did evolve from CBT - because DBT is a (radical) behavior therapy primarily. Skinner's radical behaviorism was well before any cognitive theories or therapies. In behavior therapy - thoughts (and all respondent behavior) are caused by events in the environment. Cognitions are just private behaviors requiring explanation. In DBT, and in all behavioral therapies there is no rule or foundation that thoughts precede emotions. Both emotions and thoughts are typically respondent behavior (responding to the event). Consider for a moment if emotions are primarily surviving survival functions - they will often have to precede thoughts because emotions are faster than cognitions. Can you imagine - wait - let me appraise cognitively whether this salivating lion really is dangerous. Nope - no genes to pass on. You need this chain of behaviors - Lion growls (event) - Fear (respondent private behavior) - and then running (action) - and hopefully escape/avoid getting eaten (consequence - negative reinforcement).


Blake Flannery profile image

Blake Flannery 16 months ago from United States Author

Christopher C,

It sounds like you are describing reflexes with the lion example, and cognition is fast too. The lion growling would have to be interpreted (thought) as a threat for the fear response to happen. Unfortunately, sometimes people worry about threats that aren't real or aren't likely, leading to unwanted anxiety and fear.

There's a name for when emotions come before the cognition, it's called emotional reasoning. It's still just a type of irrational thinking. An example is, "I feel anxious so there must be something bad that's going to happen." or "I feel guilty. I must have done something wrong."

The whole idea behind any thinking errors is that they are distorted and not based in reality. If a lion is actually growling at you, then there's a real threat and fear is appropriate. If that lion is just on tv, then it's more of an irrational thought since the lion can't eat you. CBT aims to help people with the irrational fears, not so much the useful fear related to actual life threatening scenarios.

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