Stages Of Change Theory


Part of the Transtheoretical Model from Psychology, stages of change theory is an attempt to quantify change as series of steps. The main idea of the stages of change theory is that anyone who alters their habits moves along a spectrum and treatment should be directed toward the stage a patient is currently in. Although the stages of change theory can be applied to any meaningful change, it is most used with behavior and damaging habits – like addiction.

Before entering a path to change in the stages of change theory, addicts are in a “precontemplation” stage – not really a stage of change at all; rather, this is a stable to semi-stable state where the addict doesn’t even think change is needed and it isn’t under consideration at all. The first true stage is a “contemplation” step. This is the first stage where an addict is thinking about their life and addiction. At this step, thoughts are about options and problems they are having. Taking action isn’t yet the focus.

The third stage of the stages of change theory is one of planning or getting ready to try something different. For an addict, this preparation stage precedes taking action, but by this time they recognize the problems and are actively seeking a solution. Many addicts will bounce back and forth between this preparation stage and the contemplation stage. Both are mental events and whether someone is making serious plans to quit or just thinking about their problems is related to how well they are managing their addiction. As personal, legal, relationship or health problems intrude, they are more likely to actively plan instead of just occasionally worrying about their life as an addict.

The fourth stage in the stages of change theory is when an addict takes direct action to get help. They are no longer willing to just think about their situation – it has usually become so unsustainable that direct action is the only real response. Whether formal or informal treatment is the option they choose, they are committed enough to change that something must be done. If the action is successful, they will be abstinent and entering the fifth stage – maintenance. Maintenance is just what it sounds like, maintaining the desired, new behavior. For addicts, this means abstinence.

Other stages sometimes considered part of the stages of change theory are termination (or transcendence) and relapse. Termination is a stage where the new behavior has become so habitual it no longer requires active effort to maintain. This is the closest addicts can get to a “cure.” Relapse isn’t really a stage so much as movement backwards on the path. The stages of change theory recognizes relapse as an expected part of overall change and not a reason to give up. This is especially so with addiction.

You can read more about the individual stages here.

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