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Behavioral Chain: A CBT Tool
Background on CBT
CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, is a form of treatment that includes improving emotions by examining both thoughts and behaviors. CBT works off the idea that thoughts and behaviors influence emotions. It is a common treatment used in conjunction with medications for mood disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders. People with these affective disorders benefit from finding new ways to think rationally and improve moods and behaviors.
The basic belief is that situations do not CAUSE thoughts and that people can choose what to think about in various situations. Therefore, situations do not cause feelings and behaviors. Thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all influenced by each other.
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.
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 his 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 Difference Between Thoughts and Feelings
What you say to yourself in your mind
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"
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
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 led to the thought, but it did not cause the thought. Although it would be tempting to say that situations cause thoughts, people can have a choice of want to think about situations. This is why some people have pleasant thoughts about certain kinds of music and others have negative thoughts when listening to the same type of music. All people have unique thought reactions. All people can also 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 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?
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
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
Best Way to Change Behaviors
What is the best part of the behavior chain to change?
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?