How to Do a Chain Analysis to Change Problem Behaviors

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It can be important for a person with PTSD to learn how to do a chain analysis. People with PTSD can develop a number of problem behaviors. However it is important to recognize that these problem behaviors develop for a reason. They are serving some kind of function, oftentimes helping someone avoid or escape distress.

What Is Chain Analysis?

Also known as functional analysis, a chain analysis is a technique designed to help a person understand the function of a particular behavior. During a chain analysis of a particular problem behavior (for example, deliberate self-harm), a person tries to uncover all the factors that led up to that behavior.

In other words, a person tries to discover all the links in the chain that ultimately resulted in problem behavior. Therefore a chain analysis will help you figure out all the things that can contribute to problem behavior.

In doing so, a chain analysis can give you insight into how to change such behavior.

For example, a person may identify the situation he was in, the thoughts he was experiencing, or the feelings he was having just prior to engaging in that behavior. In doing so, a person can increase his awareness of all the factors that may put him at risk for problem behavior. This way a person has better ability to intervene early on to prevent that behavior in the future.

Identify What You Want to Change

The first step is to identify the behavior you want to change. For example, do you want to stop engaging in self-medication through alcohol? Binge eating? Try to identify a behavior that is causing problems for you in your life.

Next, think about what happened prior to you engaging in the problem behavior. What were you doing? What was going on around you? Were you in an argument? Did you have a memory of your traumatic event triggered? Basically, you want to identify the event or situation that served as the starting point for your problem behavior.

Pay Attention to Thought Patterns

Now, identify what kinds of thoughts were brought up by the situation or event that led to the problem behavior. How did you evaluate the situation or yourself in that situation? Did you engage in catastrophic or all-or-none thinking?

Think about what emotions you were having as a result of that situation. Try your best to list as many emotions as you possibly can, such as fear, sadness, anger, shame, guilt, embarrassment, or dread.

Pay attention to what you felt in your body. Try to recognize and label all the sensations that came up.

For example, did you experience shortness of breath? Muscle tension? An increased heart rate? Think about how your body reacted to the situation.

Next, list off what your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations made you want to do. That is, did they make you want to escape the situation or do something to make those feelings stop? Did you feel a need to engage in your problem behavior?

Finally, think about the consequences of engaging in your problem behavior. Did you feel better afterward? Did you feel disappointed in yourself? Ashamed? Try to list as many consequences (both positive and negative) as you can.

Tips for Implementation

It can be helpful to go through a chain analysis soon after you engage in problem behavior. This way, your experience is fresh in your mind and you will likely be able to remember more information about the factors that led up to your problem behavior.

It might also be helpful to identify what things might have made you more susceptible to responding to the situation as you did. For example, when people do not eat well or do not get enough sleep, they may be more susceptible to experiencing negative moods or having more reactive emotional experiences.

Behaviors can serve multiple functions. Therefore, go through a chain analysis for a number of different situations that led to a problem behavior and try to identify all the functions a problem behavior serves for you.

After you go through the chain analysis, come up with different coping strategies you could use at each stage. In addition to identifying the function a problem behavior serves, it is also incredibly important to figure out how to "break the chain" through the use of healthier coping strategies.

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  1. Rizvi SL, Ritschel LA. Mastering the Art of Chain Analysis in Dialectical Behavior TherapyCognitive and Behavioral Practice. 2014;21(3):335-349. doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2013.09.002

Additional Reading
  • Rizvi SL. Chain Analysis in Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Guilford DBT Practice Series. New York: Guilford Publications Inc., 03-29-2019