The 5 Stages Of Change And What They Mean To You

By Sarah Fader |Updated July 8, 2022

Coping With Life’s Changes Can Be Challenging

Most people utilize counseling and therapy to seek some change. They may want to reduce some unwanted behavior, learn to manage some mental health symptoms, or they may simply want to feel better. Therapy is really helpful at creating change. However, change is not immediate, and it takes time

The change also does not always happen in sequence. People looking to change may struggle to establish and maintain new ways of doing or being fully. There can be setbacks, which are okay because, with an ongoing therapeutic relationship, your therapist can help you to examine those setbacks and figure out how to overcome them. Then, you can continue along your path towards more permanent change.

To better understand the process of change, two researchers-J.O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente researched with alcoholics. People who struggle with alcoholism or other forms of addiction often have the most difficult time changing their behaviors. Prochaska and DiClemente wanted to know more about change, so they could better motivate their clients and help them make a change.

What they discovered is that people typically go through 5 stages of change as they work to overcome addiction or other problem behaviors. More recently, researchers have found this model can apply to many different types of concerns, including anxiety and depression, among other disorders. Some researchers also believe there is a sixth stage of change.

Knowing which stage of change you may be in can be helpful for you in your process of therapy. Learn more about each stage of change and check out the signs of which stage you may be in:

Precontemplation

Just as the name implies, someone in the pre-contemplation stage is not yet really thinking about change. Often, this is because they do not even realize they have a problem. During this stage, others may realize there is a problem. However, the person may not agree. They may even believe that others are exaggerating the situation or worried about nothing. Because of this, someone in this stage may have some conflict in their relationships, and that may be what causes them to seek help.

People in this stage of change may not personally choose to seek therapy. If someone in contemplation is pushed into therapy by someone else or even required to attend by their work/the court, they may not cooperate very well with the process. During this stage of change, therapists are often most focused on helping the person identify what the problem may be so that they can become more open to the process of therapy and making changes in their life.

Contemplation

In contrast to the pre-contemplation stage, people in the contemplation stage are considering that they might have a problem. This creates some interest in taking steps to make a change. However, often in this state people are still feeling rather unsure. This is referred to as ambivalence. There is thought and consideration, but no clear decision or commitment to change.

During this stage, therapists often help by providing more information (also called psychoeducation) that can increase knowledge. This information can help to make things clearer so that people can be more certain whether they have a problem that they do want to change. Therapists also use an approach called Motivational Interviewing that is intended to help increase the motivation to change. Often then entails considering the pros and cons associated with the possibility of change.

Determination

With the help of therapy and techniques to increase interest and commitment towards change, people then move into the determination stage. At this point, people are aware they have a problem that they need and want to change. As the name suggests, by now, they are determined to make a change. They are ready for the change and committed to taking action to create that change.

During this stage, with a determination to make a change, people must start preparing for that change. This often involves learning more about their problem, identifying what exactly they need to do differently, and then figuring out the steps to get there. To make a change, people sometimes need to develop skills and solutions they can use to overcome their problems. This is where therapy is particularly helpful. A therapist can identify which skills are needed and provide instruction.

Action

After committing to change and preparing for it, in the action stage, people start to take steps to make a change actively. This stage often causes their work towards change to be public. Others in their life will become more aware, and some may be able to help by supporting the change. Sometimes, as people step into the action stage, they will need to reduce contact with some people who would derail change.

Therapy continues to be very important at this stage. A therapist will provide support, helping to keep things on track. If there are setbacks, they will help explore what happened and identify ways to combat that setback or avoid a similar problem in the future. Essentially the therapist helps to troubleshoot. Sometimes as change starts, people realize there are other areas of their life they are not happy with, and they want to change those too. Therapy gives a place to talk about all of this.

Maintenance

Most people are in the action stage for three to six months. It takes time to create new patterns of behavior. A few weeks of change is not enough to ensure things will stay that way. The changes need to remain and how they will sustain over the long-term. Once the change has been present for some time, they can then move into the maintenance stage.

During the maintenance stage, the goal is to maintain the changes that were made. While those changes have become well-established, it does take some attention to ensure old patterns do not return. Therapy helps to prepare people and support through the maintenance stage. Therapists help people use good skills to stay on track. They can help identify signs that a relapse may occur. They can also help people develop relapse prevention skills. If a relapse occurs, they can help people get back on track.

Termination

This is the sixth stage of change that people sometimes do not think of. However, when a change has been made and when people are in the maintenance stage, they often no longer need to remain in therapy. The goal of therapy is to help people get better and continue to a better life. When therapy ends, it is called termination. Once people are ready for termination, a therapist can help prepare them. This includes identifying signs for when it may be helpful to return to therapy in the future. Of course, even after a formal termination, it can be helpful to return to therapy anytime additional support is needed.

Recommendations

As you think about the stages of change, it is helpful to keep in mind that people do not always progress through these in a sequential, irreversible process. Often, people may start to move into a next stage, only to slip back for a while into a previous stage. This can feel difficult and discouraging, which is why therapy is helpful to provide support and help get things back on track. A therapist will help you not only keep track of your stage of change, but also encourage you along the way.

Additionally, sometimes people are struggling with multiple concerns that they want or need to change. When people are working to make multiple changes, it can feel more complex and daunting. They may not know where to start. Therapists can help people figure out which changes they want to make first. This can help to clarify what to focus on and can make change feel more attainable.

Coping With Life’s Changes Can Be Challenging

Further, when people are making changes in multiple areas, they may be at different stages for different components. For example, someone could be struggling with anxiety that prevents them from going to work. They may be feeling ready to make that change and thus be in the determination stage. At the same time, they could also be self-medicating with frequent marijuana use that they believe reduces their anxiety. Initially, they may not think this is a problem, and so they might be in the pre-contemplative stage. Therapy can help them learn more about it and think about whether to stop.

In all these cases, therapy will be very helpful to anyone wanting or needing to make a change. If you have read this far, you may be thinking seriously about your stage of change. Seeking help through counseling can give you the resources and the help you need to know where you are in the stages of change and to make the changes you want to make.

If you are concerned about someone else in your life (a family member or loved one), who is working to make a change, it can be helpful also to keep this information in mind, so you can best support them as they make their changes even through any setbacks or reversals.

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