Functions of Behavior
We began to look at the behaviors that are causing chaos in our lives in our previous blog. If you were able to take the time to practice analyzing one of your own behaviors that you would like to change, you may have already began to intuitively understand the “why” of your unwanted behavior. The magic formula in changing an unwanted behavior is to first understand they “why” of the behavior, and then to either change the environment and reduce the “triggers” of those behaviors, or find alternative behaviors that will get your needs met. Often, we don’t even know that we have needs; and we don’t realize that our unwanted behaviors are getting our needs met, which then reinforces our unwanted behaviors. This is usually unconscious until we become aware of it. Using the ABC model of behavior analysis will help you uncover what your real needs are in an objective and non threatening manner. Once you know what your needs are, you can find healthier behaviors to get your needs met.
Keeping things simple, consider the 5 basic functions of behavior. They are:
- Escape: To escape a painful, aversive, or undesirable situation. You might leave in the middle of an uncomfortable conversation, quite school or a job to escape the horrible feelings of fear, inadequacy, or overwhelm.
- Avoidance: You may sense that an argument is about to erupt, or are worried that something uncomfortable is going to happen to you. You might isolate, stop communicating, start an argument without even knowing it, (to avoid the uncomfortable topic) etc.
- Tangible: Gaining access to something. You may truly need something such as money, or to get your bills paid. Or, you may be addicted to a person, place or thing.
- Attention: If you consistently get any kind of attention, whether positive or negative, chances are, you truly need to connect, be acknowledged, and you truly need attention. This is a very common unmet need that goes unrecognized. Human beings must have attention in order to function properly.
- Automatic Reinforcement: In some cases, an individual has a physiologically based need for sensory stimulation. This is usually in the case of individuals who experience sensory deficits due to a developmental issue. It is included here because it is one of the five basic functions of behavior. However, you can understand this behavior by asking yourself why you automatically stretch in the morning after you wake up; or take a drink of water without even thinking about it; or even consider the rhythmic dances and behaviors of many of the religious expressions as people pray or meditate to feel closer to G-d. For example, the Dervish dances, or the Orthodox Jewish rocking during prayer (the examples are endless). The behavior itself reinforces the behavior, because the behavior itself causes the desired effect.
Remember the Consequence Column of your ABC Analysis in my previous post? The immediate result after a distress behavior is expressed will guide you to understanding the “function” of that distress behavior. This function will make you aware of what you need. For most of our readers, such behaviors will fall into one of the first four categories, (Escape, Avoidance, Tangible, Attention). For example, if you sense that you are about to be confronted about an uncomfortable issue when you get home from work, and you are thinking to yourself “I cant talk to her, I have to get some sleep, I’m sooo tired” and then your heart begins to race; and then you get home and say something mean to your spouse and run off to your hiding space and make a drink for yourself; and this results in your heart rate decreasing, your thoughts of worry temporarily stopping, and your tense body relaxing, then you have successfully avoided a confrontation and the distress that was building due to your worry about the confrontation. This behavior may have become such an automatic habit that you are not even aware of what you are doing. The problem is, avoiding the core issues that need to be addressed result in the potential for things to escalate to a point where you will not be able to manage the overwhelm. The way to correct this situation is to learn alternative behaviors that might help to reduce some of the distress that is triggered by confrontation, while increasing your ability to tolerate distress. This is just one example. The idea is to look at the function of the behavior, determine what your true need is, and then finding a constructive and healthful solution to getting that need met. Thinking through your solutions will take time, and you may want to include your therapist in this process. Finding alternative behaviors that include coping skills is one of the most effective ways to manage emotions and to prevent overwhelm.
If you are developing a Wellness and Recovery Plan, consider adding a personal behavior plan to use when “triggered”. This might prevent events from escalating to a point where overwhelm overtakes you.
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