The Stages of Change

Making a major lifestyle change is never easy. But success is more likely if you understand that change is a process, not a one-time decision. 

A weight-loss program is good example of this. You don’t flip a switch and suddenly eat less and healthier and lose weight. It’s a longer process than that. Sometimes it takes a while to get started because you don’t admit you need it. You look in the mirror and focus on the thin parts of your body. Or simply put the weight-loss issue out of your mind. 

But you start to think about dieting because your clothes are getting tight, you have a big event coming up, or your doctor suggested it for health reasons.

So you begin researching diet plans and foods. You set a start date and mentally prepare for it. Then you jump into your diet and are determined to stick with it — and you do great for the next two months. 

But then a special occasion crops up and you slip.  That leads to a binge and gets you off-track. Pretty soon, you’re back to your old eating habits. 

But although you’re disappointed you didn’t stick with it, you saw some bright spots. You were able to maintain weight loss for a while. 

You learn what triggers your slip-ups, and you use that knowledge to get back on track. You realize that setbacks and restarting points are stages of the change you wanted. 

So you try again and again, until finally you stick with it. You went through many ups and downs, many stages, to get there — but eventually, you were successful. 

In addiction treatment, we call this six-step process “The Stages of Change.” And whether weight loss or recovery from addiction is the goal, you go through these stages:

  1. PRE-CONTEMPLATION —you’re not aware or refuse to believe a change is necessary (sometimes called “denial”).
  2. CONTEMPLATION — you recognize there is a problem and consider doing something about it. 
  3. PREPARATION — you decide to change, and you’re getting ready to do so. 
  4. ACTION — you take steps to deal with the problem.
  5. MAINTENANCE — you’ve handled the initial challenges, and work to avoid a relapse.
  6. RELAPSE — the last stage of change, and typically the most misunderstood. Many people view relapse as failure. But relapse is the result of just not getting it right…yet. 

Change, especially a major lifestyle change like breaking free from addiction, is like learning to ride a bike. You don’t typically get it right on the first try. You fall a few times, and maybe even get hurt. But you get back up and try again. And eventually you figure it out and keep riding.

At Meridian, our staff is trained to understand the Stages of Change, and how to help someone who is struggling move through the stages. 

We also use “motivational interviewing” — a form of collaborative conversation — to strengthen self-motivation and commitment to change. 

Our experience has shown that you can’t force someone into the first stage of change — or into the next. So we talk to them about their struggle and help them discover which stage they are in at the moment. Then we help them recognize when they’re ready to move on to the next stage. 

This is not a fast process, and it can be frustrating to family members, friends and employers. We expect the person who is suffering from addiction to immediately recognize that they need help. That rarely happens. 

But an experienced treatment provider can emphasize and encourage internal thought that helps them realize they need and want change. At that point, they willingly enter the first of the Stages of Change.