Behavioral Chaining: How to use it to eliminate maladaptive behaviors
Do you have certain unwanted behaviors in your life that you want to change? Do you have a problem understanding why these behaviors occur or how to stop them? If this is the case, you might want to consider giving behavioral chaining a try.
What is behavioral chaining?
Behavioral chaining is a DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) technique that helps people address maladaptive behavior by considering the different factors that may contribute to it. In analyzing behaviors through behavioral chaining, people are often able to recognize that their “unwanted” behaviors develop for a reason and understand how to change them.
When should you use behavioral chaining?
Behavioral chaining is especially a good idea when you find yourself engaging in risky behaviors. Some examples include substance use (especially when it leads to drunk driving or other high risk behaviors), aggressive behaviors/violence, self-injurious behavior, and suicidal behavior. However, behavioral chaining can also be used with behaviors that otherwise create harm or disruption in your life, whether minor or major. Other example behaviors include overeating, throwing things out of anger, engaging with people you actually don’t want to engage with. It is best to do behavioral chaining right after you engage in the unwanted behavior, as the experience will be fresh in your mind and it will be easier to recall the details of the event.
How do you do behavioral chaining?
The first step is, of course, to choose which behavior to analyze. The behavior of napping for long periods throughout the day will be used as an example when describing the steps.
Next, consider the following items in order to identify the factors that contribute to the maladaptive behavior. Each item will be explained and placed in the context of the example behavior (napping). It is important to know that every link represents a chance to use your skills to make a change in the behavior.
What made you vulnerable to acting on the prompting event (the event that triggered the unwanted behavior)? Try to be as specific as you can. With napping, vulnerabilities might include not sleeping enough the previous night, feeling bored, or the use of drugs or alcohol. Vulnerabilities can occur even days before the target behavior and are anything that might make you less likely to use coping skills effectively. Prompting Event
This is what occurs right before the unwanted behavior. Try to describe the prompting event in nonjudgmental, descriptive language and in as much detail as possible - every detail matters. For example, if you get on your computer and start to feel bored, leading you to nap, this is the prompting event. Maybe the lighting was dim, the temperature was warm, and it was quiet in the room – this all contributes to the prompting event.
What were the most obvious emotion(s) that you felt after the prompting event? That is, what were the emotions on the surface? With napping, maybe boredom could be one emotion. Another could be feeling stressed and wanting to avoid a nap.
Consider whether there were any emotions below the surface as well; what emotions did you perhaps ignore or not notice. Maybe there was shame or sadness due to the situation.
What automatic thoughts (the thoughts that come to your mind without you actively thinking about them) or beliefs came to your mind that may have led to the unwanted behavior? With napping, maybe you might tell yourself that “it will only be a short nap” and “I will set an alarm.”
What did you feel in your body? Someone who is about to nap may be yawning and feel a heaviness in their body. They may also feel fatigued or drowsy. Other physical sensations might be stomach discomfort, shaking hands, headache, dry mouth, heart racing or anything else that is happening in your body.
What did the urge to engage in this unwanted behavior feel like for you? Was it more of a thought, or a jerking in your body, or something else? This is the “point of no return,” or your last chance to change the behavior. With napping, it might be a stretch, a yawn or seeing an image of yourself in your mind cozy in bed.
This is the maladaptive behavior that you are trying to change. For the napping example, this would be getting into bed and taking a nap. If you acted on the behavior, you might want to consider your skills used throughout your day and what you could have changed to have had a different outcome.
What happened after the behavior? Think of the short-term and long-term consequences, as well as the social consequences. A short-term consequence of taking long naps throughout the day might be that it’s harder to fall asleep that night; a long-term consequence might be that your sleep schedule might be changed. A social consequence might be sleeping through a meeting with a friend.
And that’s it! Knowing all of this, you can now consider solutions for the behaviors you are trying to change by identifying skills you can use at each step to change the behavior, leading to better outcomes. It might also be helpful to consider how to address the consequences you may be experiencing. It might seem tedious to sit down and complete the behavioral chain analysis every time the maladaptive behavior occurs, but with continued practice, this exercise will become easier to do. In doing behavioral chaining, it is easier to understand behaviors and recognize where they may be coming from. This approach can help you make significant changes in your life through the elimination of these maladaptive behaviors.
Pederson, L., & Pederson, C. S. (2012). The expanded dialectical behavior therapy skills training manual: Practical DBT for self-help, and individual and group treatment settings. PESI Publishing & Media.