How to Do a Behavior Chain Analysis

Woman by the window

Kris Ubach and Quim Roser / Getty Images

A behavior chain analysis is a process that can help people better understand why certain behavior happen. When it comes to addressing maladaptive behavior, a chain analysis can be useful for identifying the different factors that contribute to that behavior.

Chain analysis can be helpful in the treatment of different mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), substance use, and other conditions. It is an important technique in a type of therapy known as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Chain analysis allows people to recognize that problem behaviors develop for a reason. They are serving some kind of function, oftentimes helping someone avoid or escape distress.

What Is a Behavior 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.

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

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.

Doing a chain analysis takes time and effort, but it can be a useful tool when a person is trying to address specific problem behavior. In many cases, people will try to change a behavior without fully comprehending what is causing it. Chain analysis allows people to better recognize the factors that contribute to it, identify triggers, and look for solutions to stop the problem at many different points.

This is a process that people can use on their own as a self-help strategy. It is also something that people often do with the help of a therapist during dialectical behavior therapy or cognitive behavior therapy.

When to Do a Behavior Chain Analysis

Reasons a person might want to do a behavior include risky behaviors such as:

  • Risky behaviors such as substance use or drunk driving
  • Aggressive behaviors and violence,
  • Behaviors associated with mental disorders
  • Self-injury
  • Suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior
  • Any other action that creates distress, harm, or disruption in a person's life

Behavior chain analysis can often be useful for addressing specific symptoms of mental health conditions. For example, research has found that it can be useful for negative symptoms of schizophrenia. 

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.

How to Do a Chain Analysis

To do a behavior chain analysis, a person identifies the situation they were in, the thoughts they were experiencing, and the feelings they were having just prior to engaging in that behavior.

In doing so, a person can increase their awareness of all the factors that may put them at risk for problem behavior. This way a person has a better ability to intervene early on to prevent that behavior in the future.

Choose the Behavior to Analyze

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.

Questions you might ask yourself include:

  • What was the exact event that led to the behavior?
  • When did the problem first start?
  • What was happening when it began?
  • What thoughts, feelings, or behaviors were you having at the time?

When describing the behavior, be very specific and detailed. 

Identify the Links in the Chain

Next, think about what happened prior to you engaging in the problem behavior. After you write down the initial precipitating event, ask yourself what happened next. Questions you can ask yourself include:

  • What thought or feeling did you have after it happened?
  • What actions followed?
  • How did you feel during and after the 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?

The goal of this process is 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. Questions to ask yourself at this point include:

Understanding the thought patterns that led up to the behavior is important and will allow you to look for ways to change those unhelpful thoughts.

Look for Solutions

The next step is to think about solutions that can address different aspects of the behavior. These solutions will vary depending on the individual, the behavior, and the resources that each person has available. 

  • What could you have done differently at each point in the sequence?
  • What coping strategies could you have used?
  • What skills do you have that would help you deal more effectively with that behavior, thought, or feeling?
  • Are there new skills you could learn that would help?

At each point in the chain, write down solutions that you might use to address the problem. You might write, "When I start feeling X, I could use coping strategy Y."

Review the Chain of Events

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 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.

Identifying Healthier Coping Strategies

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.

A Word From Verywell

Behavior chain analysis is something that you can do on your own or with the help of a therapist to understand and take steps to change a behavior. If you are experiencing a mental health condition or behaviors that are causing pain or disrupting your life, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental health condition, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are underlying vulnerabilities in a behavior chain analysis?

    Underlying vulnerabilities are aspects of the self or the environment that increase the risk of a behavior occuring. Challenging emotions, unmet needs, lack of social support, and stress are examples of underlying vulnerabilities.

  • Why should I use a behavior chain analysis?

    If you are experiencing a behavior that is causing problems in your life or leading to distress, behavior chain analysis can be a useful tool for finding solutions. This process can help you identify what caused the behavior, understand the internal and external factors that contribute to this behavior, and look for solutions that will lead to change.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  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

  2. Borges LM, Barnes SM, Nazem S, Gerard GR, McGarity S, Clark K, Matarazzo BB, Bahraini NH, Wortzel HS. Therapeutic risk management for violence: Chain analysis of other-directed violent ideation and behavior. J Psychiatr Pract. 2021;27(3):203-211. doi:10.1097/PRA.0000000000000552

  3. Borges LM, Nazem S, Matarazzo BB, Barnes SM, Wortzel HS. Therapeutic risk management: Chain analysis of suicidal ideation and behavior. J Psychiatr Pract. 2019;25(1):46-53. doi:10.1097/PRA.0000000000000358

  4. Lincoln TM, Riehle M, Pillny M, et al. Using functional analysis as a framework to guide individualized treatment for negative symptoms. Front Psychol. 2017;8:2108. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02108

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

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.