Chain Analysis: A Powerful CBT Tool to Help You Understand Yourself
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There is a very powerful tool used in cognitive behavioral therapy that I standardly teach every client of mine in one-on-one therapy sessions.
Whether you landed on this post because you are currently struggling with something or you were simply curious, this tool, called a chain analysis or functional analysis, is helpful for everyone to have in their pocket.
You will soon discover why.
Here is an illustration of chain analysis that you can download ‘here’.
Before we begin, I would recommend you print the exercise out or draw it on a piece of paper. You can also fill it in digitally using a wireless stylus.
The best way to learn anything is to immediately start using it even while you’re learning how it works. Therefore, take a moment to have the chain analysis in front of you, whether digitally or printed out on paper.
Now, what is the chain analysis for?
The chain analysis tool is to help you analyze an event during which an unhealthy thought or behavior takes over and leads to an unhealthy result. Meaning, a result where you acted out in a way you wished you hadn’t, which made things worse or did damage whether to another person or yourself.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or simply CBT, is based on the following five concepts in this order:
Event → Thought → Feelings → Behavior→ Results
Each event triggers a thought; the thought leads to a feeling; the feeling leads to an action or behavior; and that behavior will ultimately lead to a certain result.
Often, when we react strongly—whether to ourselves or to others—in a way we wished we hadn’t, it can be quite confusing to understand why we acted the way we did.
When this happens, the chain analysis is there to help you understand the path from Event to Result and give you clarity about the chain of why you did what you did.
Once we can see the chain, we will have the information to help us understand ourselves better the next time we find ourselves in situations where we might get triggered and react unhealthily.
Thus, we will also gain the opportunity to react healthily or in a more balanced manner.
Now that we know the purpose of the chain analysis, let us start.
To explain each step of the exercise, why don’t we do one with Olivia, a 29-year-old woman who started yelling at her new boyfriend, saying things she afterward wished she hadn’t, but which were triggered because he made some comments about the food she cooked.
People always have reasons for reacting the way they do, however to outsiders, such as Olivia’s boyfriend, it might seem completely unexpected and out of nowhere.
Often, such reactions are triggered by our core beliefs, which are beliefs that we have about either ourselves, others, or the world. Core beliefs are deeply ingrained within individuals, and these beliefs are developed mostly in our childhood and overrule actual facts.
To prevent such moments from happening again, Olivia needs to become aware of the chain reaction between Event and Result.
In doing this exercise, you will become aware of when and why you reacted the way you did in certain situations, whenever you react in a way you wish you had not or felt triggered by a core belief from the past.
By using this tool more and more, you can, eventually, start catching yourself when an automatic thought is about to lead to an unhealthy reaction and change it for the better.
Okay, let us run the chain analysis together with Olivia so she too can understand what happened.
To start, let us see what the event was, the trigger that started it all.
If you look back, what do you think the trigger to the event was?
For Olivia, the trigger which started everything in this case was her boyfriend making a comment about the food she cooked.
Because of that, Olivia got angry and started yelling mean things that she wished she hadn’t at her boyfriend. If her boyfriend hadn’t said anything, this would not have happened; it would have continued to be a normal and uneventful dinner.
If you are having trouble finding the event, there are two things you can do:
1. Ask yourself, “What should have been different for me to not react the way I did?”
2. Sometimes it can be easier to start with the end—the action or the behavior—if you can’t directly uncover the event or the trigger. Simply ask yourself, “I reacted this way … (the behavior) because of … (the event).”
Our thoughts are the behind-the-scenes that outsiders don’t see, such as Olivia’s boyfriend.
However, we often need to take a moment to think about which exact thoughts were going through us at the time we reacted in a way we didn’t wish to. Most thoughts that trigger people are automatic thoughts that simply slip by without us being aware of them.
If Olivia takes a moment to think which automatic thought went through her the moment her boyfriend made a comment about her food, she can recall the following: “I put so much time, energy, and love into this. I tried my best and it was not enough. I’m just not a good cook.”
Now, it can be more difficult to uncover your thoughts than your feelings.
Therefore, if you have difficulty finding the thought you had that led to the feeling, it might be easier to skip Thoughts and start with the Feeling first.
Once you’ve found the feeling, you can ask yourself “And what thought went through me to make me feel this?”
For Olivia, it is easy to remember that she felt unworthy, sad, and even slightly angry when her boyfriend made this comment about her food.
Next to each feeling, rate the intensity from 0, or feeling it not at all, to 100, or experiencing it the strongest ever.
The behavior, also referred to as the action, is quite obvious in this case. Olivia started shouting mean things at her boyfriend.
As I said earlier, it can often be easier to start with the behavior first and work your way backward when you do the chain analysis.
And then, finally, the result is of course: What did all this lead to?
With Olivia, the result was that a whole fight broke out, lots of confusion and stress were experienced by both her and her boyfriend, and ultimately not only their dinner got ruined but also the quiet evening they intended to have together.
Even more, they both had sleepless nights because of the fight that happened.
Challenging Our Automatic Thoughts
Now that we have all this information and we understand the whole chain, the next step is, of course, to do something with this information to help ourselves in the future, or even in the moment itself after such an event has happened.
It is time to challenge these unhealthy thoughts by thinking rationally and more adaptively about what has happened.
As you can see in the exercise in the yellow fields below, we have ‘Rational Responses, New Feelings, Alternative Behaviors, and Results.’
As we know, the automatic thoughts Olivia had were:
“I put so much time, energy, and love into this. I tried my best and it’s not enough for him. I am a terrible cook.”
Challenging our automatic thoughts might be difficult. However, they are often distorted by our core beliefs, as I mentioned before.
Understand that just because they might feel true does not mean they are true.
To help you question your automatic thought, you can ask yourself one or more of the following questions:
– What facts support this thought? What existing evidence contradicts it
– Am I using a past experience to overgeneralize?
– Is there any way I might view this in a positive way?
– Will this matter one day from now? What about in one week, one month, or in 5 years?
– What would the people who care about me and love me say to me? (Friends, family, spouse, coworkers, etc.)
– What are some ways in which I’ve dealt with this same scenario before?
– What advice would my counselor or therapist give about this situation
– What am I ready to accept about this event or person?
– Are my thoughts helping me deal with this scenario? Or are they aggravating the situation?
– Besides myself, what else might be affecting this situation?
– Am I using “I must,” “I have to,” or “I should” thinking here? Is that truly necessary?
– What advice would I give a friend in this scenario?
From these questions, which one would be best to counter the automatic thought Olivia had?
I personally would counter Olivia’s automatic thought with the following question: What facts support this thought? What existing evidence contradicts it?
If Olivia truly thinks about her automatic thoughts rationally, she would realize that in all the other times she cooked for her boyfriend, he truly enjoyed her food and even commented on her great cooking skills.
It was just that this particular comment reminded her so much about how her dad used to always make negative comments about her cooking when she was young, even though she tried so hard.
Let us write that answer down for Olivia.
Now, experience what feelings this rational realization brings up.
For Olivia, it is calmness.
Let us write down this bodily sensation she is feeling under ‘New Feelings.’ Also, let’s rate it from 0 to 100.
Now that we know the rational response and the new feeling, let us explore what alternative behavior Olivia could use next time she feels triggered in a similar way.
An initial example would be to go to another room for a moment and do this exercise to understand the chain better the next time it happens.
Or, she could try to communicate with her boyfriend, or with whoever triggered her, if possible, about why she was triggered. They can explore this together. As a result of this exploration, both will understand each other better.
And what would the result have looked like if Olivia had acted in one of these alternative ways when she felt triggered by her boyfriend making a comment about her food?
If she had tried to communicate with her boyfriend about why this triggered her, and if her boyfriend had been receptive to listening even though such conversations are emotional, they would have ultimately understood each other better and likely would have continued afterward to have a pleasant evening together.
Let us write that down: ‘We would have both understood each other better and continued afterward to have a pleasant evening together.’
Finally, you can see ‘My Conclusion’. Here, you can write down anything else you would like to add about your findings. For example, how you can prevent a similar reaction from happening again next time.
Or any other reminders or notes that come to mind.
Olivia might write down a reminder to herself that she can cook well. And that someone making a comment about her food does not instantly mean she isn’t good enough for someone or that she is a terrible cook. People won’t always like everything. And that is okay.
Now, not reacting to our automatic thoughts is difficult. In fact, it can be very difficult.
Especially in the beginning, when we are just trying to or becoming aware of them.
But it is precisely by doing this exercise, over and over again in moments when we act out in ways that we wish we hadn’t, that we can start to catch our automatic thoughts before they ruin a moment or our whole day.
Therefore, use this exercise every time an unhealthy behavior, or simply behavior that you would like to change, takes over.
Take a few moments to do this exercise if you have something. And try to understand what has happened by running the chain analysis.
Slowly but surely, over time, you can start to catch your automatic thoughts in the moment and do something about them then and there.
But first, we need to create awareness about these automatic thoughts. And that is something we can do with this exercise.
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