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Behavioral Chains Use in Recovery

Chapter 11: Behavioral Chains in Recovery

Section 3: SEA's Tools for Recovery Lifestyle 
Self-Esteem Seekers Anonymous -

The SEA's Program of Recovery
By James J. Messina, Ph.D.

Behavioral Chains in Recovery


What are behavioral chains?

Behavioral chains are:

  • A series of specific behavior traits resulting in a final behavior in need of attention, remediation, or change before a recovered lifestyle can be achieved or regained.
  • Steps leading to a behavior targeted for change or relapse work.
  • The series of stimuli/response reactions, ultimately leading to a problem behavior or relapse event.
  • Specific behavior traits that make up and are the causal agents of a problem behavior pattern when linked together.
  • Linked behavior traits with some degree of predictability as to the ultimate consequence or outcome.
  • The result of linking emotional cues and respondent behaviors into a series of events that contribute to the exacerbation of problem behavior patterns or relapse of this pattern

What are some characteristics of behavioral chains?

  • If the chain of behavior patterns is broken at any point, it probably will not progress to the final behavior.
  • The earlier the break in the link, the easier it is to undo the chain.
  • Behavior chains often go unidentified prior to the occurrence of the final link in the chain.
  • Behavior chains are self‑propelling; they have a momentum of their own to go on and on.
  • The chains can be diagramed, but one must begin with the last link and trace backward to each preceding behavior or emotional cue.
  • Behavior chains can be broken into habitual patterns that give insight into chain‑breaking strategies and alternative behavior traits which help to prevent future relapse.

What are some examples of behavioral chains?

You have decided to participate in the “Great Smoke Out'' day sponsored by the American Cancer Society. You arrive at work.

  1. Craving for a cigarette begins.
  2. You take the money out with which to purchase a pack.
  3. Guilt feelings over craving a cigarette begin.
  4. Anxious if you don't have enough money to get cigarettes.
  5. Nervous until “break” time.
  6. Craving increases.
  7. Get up from desk anxious to get to lobby.
  8. Excited about this decision.
  9. Put money into cigarette machine.
  10. Open pack of cigarettes.
  11. Enjoy the smell of a new pack.
  12. Anticipation of pleasure waiting to be experienced.
  13. Nervous that a co‑worker will catch you lighting up.
  14. Walk into bathroom; enter a stall.
  15. Put cigarette in mouth.
  16. Pull out lighter and ignite flame.
  17. Touch flame to cigarette and take a deep drag on cigarette.
  18. Continue smoking cigarette to completion.
  19. Guilt feelings begin over having given in to the urge to smoke.
  20. Craving for another cigarette begins.

The Pizza Binge

You have had a horrible day at work and are feeling pressured by your boss to either increase daily quota of work or face poor performance evaluation.

  1. You leave work in distress, upset over not having been assertive, not standing up for your rights with the boss.
  2. In the heavy commuter traffic, you feel upset over course of the day.
  3. Driver in the car next to you cuts in front of you, making you shout and gesture to him.
  4. You pass several pizza shops and think of a big, deep‑dish pizza with all the trimmings.
  5. You honk horn loudly at driver in front of you who has slowed down the pace of traffic.
  6. Angry at self for losing temper.
  7. See billboard with a deep‑dish pizza advertised.
  8. You feel the seat belt pressing in on your stomach and you think more about food.
  9. Depressed over your boss's inability to show appreciation for your good work.
  10. Annoyed at the slow pace of traffic.
  11. Getting hungry and tasting the pizza as you pass the twelfth pizza shop.
  12. Finally you pull into a pizza shop parking lot.
  13. You call home to say you will be late, that you have more work to do at the office.
  14. Check your wallet to see if you have enough money for a pizza.
  15. Angry at self for allowing work, boss, and traffic to upset you.
  16. Get into pizza shop and stand at ``take out'' counter.
  17. Feel exhilarated when it is your turn to order.
  18. Order a large, deep‑dish pizza with all the works.
  19. Mentally review the day's events as you wait your 25 minutes.
  20. Get angry again over your boss's rudeness and lack of caring.
  21. Feel depressed as you review the route your life has taken: overworked, underappreciated, and taxed by a forty‑five minute commute twice a day.
  22. Feeling sorry for self for the hard knocks life has dealt you.
  23. Your name is called; you feel excited over your rewarding of yourself; you deserve it!
  24. Pay for pizza and carry it to your car.
  25. Open pizza box and become intoxicated by the aroma.
  26. You eat one piece.
  27. You take a deep breath, feeling rewarded and at peace.
  28. You continue to eat piece after piece and relish each flavor.
  29. You force yourself to eat the last three pieces, then the crust.
  30. You feel stuffed, embarrassed: What have you done! Why did you eat the whole thing?
  31. Guilty and depressed, you dispose of all evidence of the pizza.
  32. You drive home feeling hopeless, trapped. Why did you lie about doing work at the office when you were going to binge on Pizza? Why did you binge? You hate yourself.

How can you control a behavioral chain?

In order to control a behavioral chain, the links need to be identified and broken. You can work at:

  • Interpreting events in your life differently so that they are less likely to have the power to lead you to exercise habitual problem behavior or relapse to old behaviors.
  • Using rational thinking about what is happening in your life eliminates the "shoulds'' and "musts'' from your thinking about how others should treat you and how you should treat others.
  • Substituting positive affirmations and positive self‑talk when you are being bombarded with emotional cues or irrational thoughts about yourself, events, or others.
  • Taking responsibility for your own actions, not blaming other persons or events for making you fall into the behavior chain.
  • Substituting alternative, healthy behavior, for those behavior traits that lead to the problem behavior or relapse event.
  • Substituting required activities for antecedent behavior in a chain, such as doing office work, paying bills, cleaning the house, opening the mail, paying attention to defensive driving techniques, etc.
  • Substituting enjoyable activities for antecedent behaviors in a chain such as enjoying a hobby, listening to music, exercising, calling a SEA's Buddy, writing a letter, going to a movie, reading for pleasure.
  • Substituting positive behavior in a chain of behavior known to lead to habitual problems or relapse events.
  • Reinforcing positive behavior traits and ignoring negative behavior patterns, or substituting new behavior traits for negative behavior patterns or relapse events.
  • Recognizing the behavior that habitually leads to predictable, negative‑consequence behavior chains or relapse events.

What beliefs block you from recognizing the behavioral chains in your problem behavior patterns?

  • I never know why I do the things I do. It's beyond me.
  • There is no sense in looking at the causes of my behavior. What's important is to treat the symptoms.
  • I've always done it this way. I will never change.
  • What difference does it make what behavior preceded my problem behavior? All I know is I have a problem I can't seem to shake.
  • It takes too much time to work on analyzing the chain of events leading to my problem behavior.
  • So, what difference will it make to identify antecedent behaviors or events when they are out of my control anyway?
  • I'm compulsive; that's all I need to know to explain why I act the way I do.
  • I'm so embarrassed by the way I act; I'd hate to tell anybody else about it.
  • I am a loser and there is no helping me.
  • If it weren't for ________ (spouse, parent, child, boss, job, problem of the day), these things would never happen.

Identify the behavioral chains in your life

Take five separate problem behavior traits or relapse events from the past month and create a behavioral chain on each. Remember to list events, persons, emotional cues, reactions, feelings, thoughts and behavior traits that led to the final problem behavior or relapse event. Once you have completed the five chains, respond to the following 4 questions:


  1. In reviewing the behavioral chains of these five problem behaviors or relapse events, I recognize that my problem behavior is usually linked with the following antecedent behaviors: (Make a list for each problem. Note similarities.)
  2. I could substitute the following activities if similar chains should occur in the future:
  3. The following emotions often lead me to my problem behavior or relapse event:
  4. I need to take the following actions so I can recognize when I'm in the midst of a behavioral chain leading to one of my problem behavior patterns or relapse events:


NOTE: For more stimuli to assist you to identify behaviors for which behavioral chains are a productive tool of personal growth assessment, use the Tools for Anger Work‑Out and Tools for Handling Control Issues by James J. Messina, Ph.D.