How to Break Unhealthy Habits With A Chain Analysis

“Guess who woke up to 17 texts from their ex? 
…My ex.”


We’ve all been there. You wake up the next morning with that pit in your stomach, and that thought in your mind, “Oh no, what did I do?” The memories come flooding back accompanied by regret. When we become out of control emotionally, it can lead to all sorts of bad decisions. 

From going out and drinking way too much, to binge eating, to saying something hurtful to someone you care about, the possibilities of poor decisions are limitless. Many people find themselves in that same morning after the situation over and over.

Why are unhealthy habits difficult to break?

It is difficult to change your future behavior if you haven’t learned from the past, and you can’t really learn from the past unless you examine what happened. This is where chain analysis comes in. Chain analysis is a technique refined by psychologist Marsha Linehan, as a part of her Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, used to assess the function and cause of a problem behavior. 

A problem behavior, also known as a target behavior, is an action taken that causes harm or distress to the person undertaking and/others. Problem behaviors can be almost anything including, cutting, avoidance, or substance abuse. They are generally considered unacceptable, and occur consistently, they are not just the result of an infrequent error in judgment.

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How to use a chain analysis to break unhealthy habits

During chain analysis, the client describes the problem behavior and the precipitating event. The precipitating event is basically something that occurred in the set of the series of events that led to the target behavior. 

This could be an upsetting phone call, a romantic rejection, or trouble at work. The client then lists all of the thoughts, emotions, sensations, and actions that linked the precipitating event to the problem behavior. Being specific as possible for every link in the chain is very important.

As psychologist Matthew Tull of the University of Toledo in Ohio sums it up, “…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 the better ability to intervene early on to prevent that behavior in the future.”

Chain Analysis Steps:

1. List the Links

List as many of the links in the chain as you can  and put them in chronological order.

2. List the Consequences

After ordering all the links, list all of the consequences (positive and negative) that resulted from the problem behavior.

3. Describe Your Vulnerabilities

Then, describe any vulnerabilities that may have been present before the precipitating event. Vulnerabilities could include being sick, tired, hungry, or being in an altered state from substance use. Anything that could have made you more likely to react poorly to the precipitating event. It is important to note these so you can be sure to mitigate the risk of negative outcome.

4. Brainstorm Solutions

The next step is to brainstorm detailed solutions to the problem. Between every thought, emotion, sensation, or action, write what you could have done to have stopped the reaction at that point. Then identify the junctures where the most effective interventions could occur.

5. Consider Where to Intervene

Think about the best place on the chain to intervene. Tull advises that, “After you go through the chain analysis, come up with different coping strategies that 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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How to Most Effectively Use a Chain Analysis

Unfortunately, problem behaviors frequently result in negative consequences to not only you, but others around you. It is important to take an inventory of the harm you may have caused others as a result of your actions. 

This is the time to contact those you may have hurt and try to repair the relationship. Ask them how you can make amends and do what you can.

When utilizing chain analysis, it is most effective to go through the exercise as soon after the problem behavior occurred as possible. If you wait too long, you may forget the particulars or misremember certain events. It is best to do it while everything is fresh in your mind. 

Chain analysis can help you understand why you are acting in a way that doesn’t seem to serve your best interests. It is also a good way to develop strategies and skills that can ultimately remove you from the cycle of problem behaviors. If you find yourself frequently behaving in ways that you know are harmful, chain analysis might be worth a shot.

Your Next Steps

Going through a chain analysis can be especially helpful with the support from a mental health professional. If you’ve been struggling to break habits you’re getting tired of, support from a mental health professional can be useful and New York Behavioral Health is here for you. Feel free to reach out to us if you’d like more information. You can also schedule an appointment right here on our website.

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