Chain analysis: one thing leads to another

Use the chain analysis worksheet to take time to reflect on a recent situation that you would like to understand better.

When we analyse difficult situations in CBT we ask two fundamental questions: "Was the way I thought about a situation accurate, logical and helpful?"; and, "Was the way I acted in that situation constructive in the short and long term?"

By using chain analysis (sometimes called functional analysis) we can revisit a situation that we'd like to understand better and break it down into its component parts. This process of analysing our thoughts, feelings, physical reactions and behaviour can help us to choose alternative ways of thinking and acting that have better consequences for our mental wellbeing and our relationships.

We start by asking about the factors that made us sensitive or vulnerable to being triggered even before the difficult situation arose; in other words, "What set me up?" Perhaps we had already been having a challenging day, or we were feeling tired, run down or frustrated.

Next, we ask about the trigger that caused our reaction: in other words, "What set me off?" Perhaps it was something someone said or did that hit a raw nerve.

Next, we ask "What was my immediate reaction?" Here your feelings are a good guide: ask yourself, "What was the strongest emotion I felt and what physical sensations did I experience?" Emotions include anger, sadness, anxiety, shame, guilt, embarrassment, surprise, happiness and so on. Physical sensations include tingling, butterflies in the stomach, tightness in the chest, pain, tension, feelings of unreality and so on.

Once we have an idea of what set us up, what set us off, and what we felt in response, we can ask ourselves, "What was going through my mind at the time?" It can be difficult to remember exactly what we were thinking, so feel free to take some time, close your eyes and try to imagine yourself back in the situation. You might try asking yourself, "What assumptions was I making?", or "Did this situation remind me of another time in my life?"

Our behaviour is driven by our perception of what is happening (our thoughts about the situation) and the emotion we feel at the time. If our thoughts are our view of the road ahead then emotion is the fuel in the engine of behaviour. So it is important to ask ourselves, "Given the way I was thinking and feeling, what did I do?" or, "If I had a video of what happened, what would I see?"

Finally we ask, "What were the consequences?" Actions that get rewarded tend to get repeated. Sometimes the reward is the gratifaction we feel when we get something that we like. Sometimes the reward is the the relief we feel when we managed to avoid something we anticipated would be unpleasant. Our behaviour is often directed towards immediate consequences, even if in the long-term they can be unhelpful. It can be challenging to keep in mind the long-term consequences of our behaviour at a time when we have very strong feelings, so it can be useful to reflect on how well our actions served both our short and long-term interests. This information can help us to plan and practise how to react in similar situations in the future.

Show instructions
Vulnerability/Sensitivity: what set me up?
Trigger: what set me off?
Feelings: what emotions did I feel?
Physical sensations: what happened in my body?
Thoughts/Images: what went through my mind?
Behaviour/Actions: what did I do?
Short-term consequences: what happened in the short-term?
Long-term consequences: what happened in the long-term?
Conclusions: what have I learned?

You can email the details of the form to yourself (or your CBT therapist, if appropriate), print it out, or download it as a pdf. If you want to save your entries so that you can work on them later, you can click "Save". You can delete your settings by clicking on "Cancel" when the page is reloaded and they will be deleted automatically. You can also click the "Clear" button at any time to reset the form and delete your saved data. Saving the data uses local storage, which means your data is never passed to us. Some browsers do not allow local storage. If you have a problem saving, check whether a different browser, or a different device, might work better. Your confidentiality is very important to us so your saved data will never be sent to us or shared. If you use a shared device, or think that another person might get access to it, please consider the risk of accidentally breaching your own privacy before choosing to save, email or download your use of these resources.