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Behavioral Chain Analysis: A CBT Tool

Blake has worked in the mental health field since 2002 educating and inspiring hope on the journey toward recovery.

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 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.

CBT in a nutshell.

CBT in a nutshell.

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

Use these characteristics to help you distinguish between thoughts and feelings. This is an important part of understanding how the behavior chain works.


What you say to yourself in your mind

Emotional reactions

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.

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

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

Create Your Own Behavioral Chain


  1. 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 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.
  2. Using the same situation, create another behavioral chain identifying positive or rational thoughts you could have had.
  3. Then, identify feelings you would have based on those positive and rational thoughts
  4. Finally, identify the behavior you would have based on those positive thoughts and feelings.
  5. 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 ThoughtsIrrational 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?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Blake Flannery (author) from United States on July 29, 2015:

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.

ChristopherC on July 28, 2015:

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).