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The Stages of Change

The Stages of Change model

When taking the decision to stop drinking alcohol you are effectively embarking on a major lifestyle change. This is particularly true if your drinking has developed into an addiction, and has come to dominate all aspects of your life in one way or another, since when you quit pretty much every area of your life will be impacted.

This can be a scary prospect for many people and can hold back their “readiness” to change, even if their “willingness” to change is high.

To help recognise and manage this potential barrier it is useful to understand the process we go through when making major changes; to understand that change is not a singular one-off event, but a series of progressive stages. It is necessary to pass through each of these stages on our way to a successful outcome, moving through at our own pace, and only progressing to the next stage when we are ready to do so.

The States of Change model was developed in the 1980’s by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente when researching how smokers were able to give up their addiction to nicotine.

Here are the stages of the model as they apply to alcohol, or any other addiction:

Stage 1 – Pre-Contemplation

Stages of Change Stop Drinking

Stages of Change model

In this stage the drinker doesn’t believe he/she has a problem. Other people may think they have a problem, and may say as much, but the drinker doesn’t care – it’s not their problem. This can also be called “denial”.

As they do not recognise that a problem exists they are not looking for a solution, and may well become defensive when challenged.

If you are reading this because you are looking to change your drinking habits, you are most likely beyond the pre-contemplation stage.

Stage 2 – Contemplation

In this stage you are beginning to accept that you may have a problem with alcohol, and are able to see the negative consequences that alcohol is causing in your life. But at the same time you still like to drink, even though it causes you problems and you’re not sure if you want to go through all the hassle that giving up would cause. So although you recognise you have a problem you are either not yet ready or not yet willing to commit to stopping. For some people this stage can last for years if the problems caused by alcohol are not perceived as serious enough to push them over the edge into the next stage.

Stage 3 – Preparation

In the preparation stage there is a realisation from the drinker that some sort of action is needed – that the current situation must change. They may not know exactly how to make the necessary changes, but will begin to seek out information, through self help books, internet research, etc in order to find out what strategies and resources are available to them. Perhaps by visiting a site such as this, for example.

Although this is still only preparation, and no concrete action is being taken to address the problem, this is a key stage in the change program nonetheless. Too often, people skip this stage and to move directly from contemplation into action, only to fail because they haven’t adequately researched or accepted what it is going to take to make this major lifestyle change.

Stage 4 – Action

This is when all the planning and preparation has been done and the drinker is galvanised into action. They have gathered together all the resources they need and they now feel empowered to make changes in their lives – ie they stop drinking. At the same time they put into action those strategies which will help them stay on track and support and sustain their efforts as they implement and reinforce their new behaviours.

In this stage people are now very receptive to help, and may seek outside assistance such as support groups or counselling, and are highly committed and motivated to resolving their problems and to remain dry.

Stage 5 – Maintaining the Change

This stage is all about reinforcing the newly acquired behaviours and developing new skills to deal with life as a non-drinker and avoiding the temptation to relapse. During this stage it is important to recognise that old unwanted thoughts and behaviours will rear their heads from time to time so it is vital to have relapse prevention strategies worked out to deal with every eventuality.

It is also important during this stage to keep in mind the long term goal of a better life without alcohol. As the days pass and the painful memories of alcohol addiction recede a little, it is easy to think that you never really had a problem at all. Remember that this is just another of the insidious tricks that alcohol will play on you, even after you have been dry for a while.

Stage 6 – Paradigm Shift

Lewis Caroll quoteIf the maintenance stage is successful for a long enough period of time, eventually you will experience a paradigm shift, or a totally new way of thinking about alcohol. This effectively means that your desired behaviours – newly acquired at the action stage and nurtured during the maintenance phase – become engrained in your subconscious as new habits, erasing and replacing the old unwanted ones.

To revert to your old habits at this stage would feel unnatural to you, and no longer part of who you perceive yourself to be.


Of course, it is important to realise that relapse – or the process of returning to your old behaviours and abandoning the new changes – can happen at any time during the change process and a key part of the preparation stage should be to plan active strategies to combat this risk.

However, it is recognised that many people will need to cycle through the change process several times before lasting change is achieved, and in this sense any relapse shouldn’t be viewed as a failure, but simply as an integral part of the learning process which will make them stronger in the long term.

Action Point: Where are you in the Stages of Change process right now? What needs to happen to move you into the Action phase if you are not there already? Write it down!

Next Steps: Assessing Your Current Situation


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