• Our thoughts and emotions come so quickly, it can be hard to understand why we act as we do

  • Counsellor and author of Stay, Daughter Yasmin Azad explains how behaviour chain analysis works

  • We have therapists and counsellors available to support you here

Have you ever contemplated taking your life because you couldn’t find parking? You would have if you had been a therapy client whom I will call Jane. This is how it came to be.

One day, when Jane drove up to the university where she was enrolled, she found the parking lot full. After much driving around, she parked her car some distance away on a street. Sometime later, she reported that she was feeling suicidal.                 

Fortunately, she didn’t give in to her feelings. In therapy, we tried to understand what had happened. After much investigation, we had an “aha” moment about the “logic” behind how she went from no parking space to I need to die.

Because Jane was a part-time student, she had driven up in the afternoon. Thus, the parking lot was filled with the cars that belonged to the students who had arrived that morning—the full-time students. They were younger and, Jane assumed, smarter than her. Most significantly, none of them were likely to be like her—a woman who had dropped out of university two decades earlier because of a mental illness, who was now trying to complete her degree.

She compared herself to them and felt utterly worthless. Why should she continue to live?             

There’s a word in Buddhist teachings for the thought process which drove Jane to suicidal feelings—papancha. Translated, it means mental proliferation. Pa, pa,  the sound of an untethered horse galloping away, is an apt simile for a runaway mind. It is the habit of believing our thoughts, creating images, comparing, contrasting, building beautiful castles in the air or horror-filled caverns on the ground, and spending a lot of  time inside those imaginary constructions.

Jane thought she was feeling suicidal because she was depressed. These dark and heavy feelings, which had a tendency to overcome her, had returned—seemingly from nowhere, or so she believed. But our emotions don’t arrive for no reason. When something triggers our thoughts and feelings, it leads to a chain reaction, much like a domino that tilts towards another—until a whole row of dominoes fall and we find ourselves in a state of mind far from where we originally were. 

How can you find what might have set off the sequence? One method is to use a tool called behaviour chain analysis. This is a process used in cognitive behavioural treatments, like CBT and DBT. It is the practice of following a string of thoughts and associations back to its origin. Utilising this method, you identify the situation you were in, as well as the thoughts and feelings you were experiencing just before that event.

When Jane began the process of chain analysis, her emotions seemed to be a vague blob of feelings that were stuck together. Not a mind state, the origin of which could be broken down into steps. As she worked further back along the chain, she was able to tweak out the different associative parts and figure out what the problem was.

And figuring out exactly what the links are in a chain is the first step in coming out of a difficult emotional state. Jane’s distressing state of mind had come into existence when she compared herself with students whom she believed were so much better than her. When she saw that, she had something to work with. She could challenge the belief that she was an inferior human being.

One of the benefits of doing repeated chain analysis work is that you begin to recognise your vulnerabilities and see a pattern in the behaviours they trigger. Some months after the parking space episode, Jane reported being distraught at work when she was called “just a part-time employee.” It eventually dawned on her that there was something predictable about how she responded to such situations.

When Jane believed that she was not living up to social expectations about education and work, her mind almost instantly spiralled into thoughts of inferiority and suicide. However, when she was able to recognise this pattern more quickly, she could intervene early and  prevent it from becoming destructive. 

In therapy, we practiced the ways in which she could change her beliefs. Does educational and professional status really make a person superior? Were there things about herself that she was forgetting when she sprinted into these mind states of feeling so much less than everyone else? Could she bring to mind how she cared for the environment, was kind to animals, and was courageously trying to integrate into a community after many years spent in an institution?  

The moral of the story is this.

When your mind wanders off into a troubling train of thoughts and associations, it’s worth the trouble to follow it back. This requires repeated practice in mastering the essential steps, such as the recognition of vulnerability factors, prompting events, links, and problem behaviours. 

If you have significant issues, it will be best to work with a mental health provider like a psychotherapist or counsellor. On your own, you can use the many videos and articles that come up on the internet when you search for behaviour chain analysis, like the ones below.

The commitment to becoming familiar with the ways in which your thoughts gallop away is well worth it. You can train your mind to not go down habitual and destructive pathways. You can lead a happier life.

Yasmin Azad is the author of Stay, Daughter: A Memoir of Muslim Girlhood

Further reading

9 steps to get a hold of catastrophising

The benefits of being curious about who you are

Why do we get triggered and what can we do about it?

How to break unhealthy patterns around anger expression

What is Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)?