The 5 Stages of Change: A Handy Framework for Understanding Recovery

It's a tried and true model for what the transition from addiction to recovery looks like. Get acquainted with each stage to assess where you're at — and what you can achieve

November 7, 2022
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In the movies, recovery and sobriety usually come only after a character hits “rock bottom”: Caught up in substance use, they wreck a relationship, get arrested, overdose, lose the big contract, or the house, or the kids. Now, that sort of thing can spur change in the real world, but recovery usually begins rather less dramatically. As old-timers in recovery sometimes put it, they simply got sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Maybe you’ve reached that point, maybe you haven’t. Even if you’re ready for change, it’s scary to face the understanding that the life you know is unsustainable — and perhaps even scarier to step into the unknown of a new one. But you do have the power to choose how you want to change and explore options that work for you.

For some, it can be empowering to understand the five stages of change when thinking about recovery. This model of change, also called the transtheoretical model, was formulated and first published back in 1983, but it remains a straightforward, elegant and easy-to-grasp framework for breaking down the steps and thought patterns that accompany the transition from substance use to sobriety.

We’ve put together a quick primer that explains each stage, so you can understand the place that you or a loved one may be in, as well as the challenges that can accompany each stage. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be.

Through the stages, you will gain further understanding and new perspectives. Here’s what to expect.

Traveling the 5 Stages of Change

This model of change, at its core, is designed to explain periods in which thought processes are developed in addiction. Knowing the basics can give you some clarity about what you’re going through, and some motivation to keep it moving. In theory, each stage is completed before the next occurs, but recovery can be messy; it’s OK to skip around, consciously or not.

Most people don’t know exactly what to expect throughout treatment and recovery. Maybe you’re hesitating to seek help because you’ve heard about one-off bad experiences. Perhaps you simply don’t know where to start, or if you’re ready. (A tip: There’s this website, called All Sober, that has many, many helpful resources to point you in the right direction.)

Even when you are ready, you should expect to change many things you are comfortable with — but also many things that are dragging you down.

If you think about this transition in terms of stages of change, you’ll probably learn a good bit about yourself, and you may recognize some of your own thought patterns, attitudes and behaviors.

1) Precontemplation

In this early stage of change, you are unaware you are engaging in addictive behaviors, or at least, that the negative effects might constitute a “problem.” If confronted about your use, you may offer excuses; at this point, it may seem fun, or at least harmless.

There are a few reasons you may be in the precontemplation stage of change regarding addiction. You may not recognize or accept your behaviors, or lack the motivation to change. Here, it is hard to accept you need help.

During this stage, you are more likely to focus on the things you’d have to “give up” instead of what you might gain. But addiction is a progressive disease. Negative consequences surface. When they do, you might pause — to contemplate.

2) Contemplation

In this phase of change, the action starts to manifest. Here, potential change can be analyzed; you consider what your future might look like, with substances and without. You may start to evaluate your lifestyle and take note of unhealthy experiences. Are you happy with the direction of your life? Proud? Because you deserve to be, you know.

At this stage, you are researching recovery and collecting information on what might work for you. Thought processes take you back and forth, perhaps in the direction of wanting change — but change may seem overwhelming. Try writing down a list of pros and cons when you’re asking around about recovery from other people’s perspectives.

3) Preparation

This is the stage of change where the action begins. Here, you are not only anticipating change but planning for it. You’re preparing a plan of action for stopping your substance use. For example, you are considering unhealthy relationships, places and things to eliminate. You may acknowledge your triggers and are researching resources available to you. This is progress!

4) Action

You’re ready.

In this stage, you put your plan into action. This is when most people make life-altering changes to overcome their addictions, when a transformation will occur based on the previous steps. It can be stressful. But having the proper preparation and support in place will ease the way, giving you the space and clarity to see what a fulfilling life in recovery might look like.

In this stage, you will learn to lead a life free from substances, with new coping skills to combat stress, anxiety and the complicated emotions of early recovery. But you’re on the way. Eventually, you’ll have a quiet realization: You are more powerful than your addiction.

5) Maintenance

In this stage, you keep going. You resist the temptation to return to your old habits. Instead, remind yourself of the goals that you have achieved, to encourage growth, while practicing relapse prevention skills daily. Meditate. Make friends. Find hobbies. Run marathons. Whatever helps get you through.

In the maintenance phase, you will also explore other areas of your life you can improve, continue to work on your goals and set new ones.

Take Action Now

The stages of change can progress differently for everyone. Some might go through several stages all at once, while others might linger awhile in each phase, depending on the severity of their substance use and unique circumstances. The most crucial part is to take proactive steps toward creating and achieving a healthy, satisfying life free from substances.

You’re not alone: Tens of millions of people are living it every day.

More Help & Information

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker

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