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Stages of Change

Changing a behavior is difficult—just ask anyone who has ever made and then broken a New Year's resolution. Lasting behavior change involves a commitment of time, energy and emotion. To affect positive change, it's important to understand the underlying elements associated with change and how these factors motivate an individual's change mechanisms.

When you decide to make a change, do you typically do so in stages—identifying the need to change, formulating a plan, etc.? Does it take you several attempts to make that change permanent? If so, then you're not alone.

Regardless of the type of change you're trying to make (health-related, work-related, personal habit) there's no "one-size-fits-all" approach. Each individual will apply different techniques, utilizing the ones that work best for them. During the process of change, we all may experience frustration and discouragement, and some will give up on the behavior change entirely. The key to affecting lasting change—and staying motivated—is to understand the process of change itself.

To that end, psychologists have developed a number of ways to help people change their behavior, which are used by therapists, physicians, teachers and other health professionals. Researchers also have proposed theories to explain how change occurs. One of the most accepted is known as the "Stages of Change"Model (SCM) or Transtheorectical Model.

The Stages of Change Model was developed in the late 1970s by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente at the University of Rhode Island while researching ways that smokers overcome addiction. The idea behind the SCM is that behavior change does not happen in just one step. Rather, people progress through different stages on their way to successful change. Also, each of us moves through the stages at our own pace, deciding for himself/herself when a stage is completed and when it's time to move to the next.

The Stages of Change are:

Stages of Change image

  • Pre-contemplation—not yet acknowledging there is a behavior that needs to be changed,
  • Contemplation—acknowledging there is a need for change but not yet ready or sure of wanting to make a change,
  • Preparation/Determination—getting ready to change,
  • Action/Willpower—making the change,
  • Maintenance—maintaining the behavior change, and
  • Relapse—reverting to previous behaviors and moving away from the new behavior.

Stage One: Pre-contemplation
In the pre-contemplation stage, you are not considering change and thus are not interested in any kind of help. If you are in this stage, you may tend to defend your behavior(s) and may not feel it needs to be changed.

Stage Two: Contemplation
In the contemplation stage, you are more aware of the personal consequences of your behavior and begin thinking about change. In this stage, you may feel like you are on a teeter-totter—weighing the pros and cons of modifying the behavior. Although you are considering change, you are not yet committed to take action.

Stage Three: Preparation/Determination
In the preparation/determination stage, you have made a commitment to change. Your motivation is reflected in statements such as: "I've got to do something about this—this is serious. Something has to change. What can I do?" This is a research phase where seeking and gathering information on what must be done to change the behavior takes place. This stage is the foundation of lasting behavior change but is often skipped. When this happens, the likelihood of failure is very high.

Stage Four: Action/Willpower
This is the stage where you apply the knowledge you gained during the previous stage (preparation). You take active steps to change and exhibit a new pattern of behavior. The amount of time you spend in the action stage varies, and is affected by both internal and external influences.

When negative influences are stronger than the motivation and commitment to change, relapse occurs. The use of short-term rewards, accountability partners and other techniques can help sustain your motivation.

Stage Five: Maintenance
Maintenance, simply stated, is the ability to successfully manage influences that may cause relapse. The goal of the maintenance stage is to maintain the new status quo. If you are in this stage, you may continually remind yourself of how much progress you have made—reformulating the rules of your life and acquiring new skills to avoid relapse. You likely have learned to anticipate the situations in which relapse could occur and have prepared coping strategies in advance.

Recognizing that what you are striving for is personally worthwhile and meaningful, you are patient with yourself, you recognize that it often takes a while to let go of old behavior patterns and you may practice the new behaviors until they become second nature. Even though you may have thoughts of returning to your old pattern, you resist the temptation and stay on track.

Stage Six: Relapse
Relapse involves a slide back toward or a resumption of old behaviors. It has characteristics of a "fall from grace." In this stage, it is important to evaluate triggers for relapse and reassess motivations for, and barriers to, the behavior change. A technique for overcoming relapse is to plan stronger coping strategies as you approach to the desired behavior change.

Change Happens to Everyone

It is important to remember that change, both positive and negative, happens to everyone. We all move through the stages of change in the same order but not necessarily at the same pace. Also, it's natural to regress, re-evaluate and then get back on track. By understanding the elements of change, the stages of changes and how we work through each stage you can successfully achieve a change in behavior.

Some content provided by: Virginia Tech Continuing and Professional Education