5 Defined Stages of Change

by Clinical Staff

Change is the only constant in life.

With every raindrop that falls onto the mountain, it is further eroded and sculpted. But the mountain has no control over the rain. Sometimes it is a light drizzle and other times it is a torrential downpour. The mountain is always changing, even though it may not always be apparent on the outside.

Santa Barbara Detox

Life continuously challenges us to cast off into the unknown, to keep moving forward, and sometimes we gladly take to the open seas, while others we hold on to the land with all dear life…

Change requires us to let go of the old, and open ourselves up to the new. Letting go and opening up may be the two hardest things we are called to do in this life. The old is comfortable and familiar, the new is uncertain and vulnerable.

There are many levels of change happening at all times, individually, culturally and globally. On an individual level, there are also many levels of change simultaneously happening on a micro and macro level. For example, maybe you are trying to form the habit of meditating once a day, while you’ve just moved to a new city, and are trying to learn a new skill for your job.

For most, the decision to come into an outpatient treatment program is a tremendous change. It signifies that the pain of staying the same has outweighed the potential pain of changing and doing something different. But often, making the decision to make this change is a long process. It’s the acceptance of leaving behind the way of life you are so accustomed to, and beginning again to create the life you want to live.

There are many ways to look at the process of change, from CG Jung’s process of Individuation, to the ancient Alchemical process, to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. But by and large, psychologists have mapped out the common cycle of change in a simple, practical way, that breaks it down into 5 distinct stages of change.


In this stage of change, we are unaware of any behaviors that we want to change. Things are working well enough that change is not even a thought in our minds yet, patterns are forming and tensions are building.


The beginning of this stage is marked by the realization that there is something that we potentially want to change. Something in our life has become unmanageable or exhausting, or we are not getting the desired results from our behaviors. We may consider the pros and cons of making a change, or maybe just daydream about what change might be like for us.


In the preparation stage, something has shifted, our hopes and dreams are becoming more concrete. This is when we start planning about how to make the change a reality. We start to figure out what actions we have to take, what resources we need, what environments and people would be supportive to make a change. We may think out our triggers and patterns so that we can figure out a way to steer clear of them, and list out coping skills we can use. We may make a prevention plan for unexpected events so that in the event that something really jarring happens in our life, we can readily deal with it. It helps to have specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-oriented goals for your process because it is easy to bite off more than we can chew by setting goals that are too lofty or vague. Instead of trying to run 5 miles a day for a month straight, it might be more attainable that you start with simply going for a run every day for a week, and then bump it up to something more challenging if you reach that goal.


You’re doing it, you’re really doing it!

This is where the rubber hits the road, and you start to put all those plans into action.


Once you’ve gotten through the initial honeymoon period of the action stage, we inevitably run into challenges, bump up against roadblocks that we didn’t anticipate, or we find that what we are doing doesn’t work anymore for some reason. Sometimes walking the path of change gets exhausting and boring, so we might need to add new ways to spice things up to keep our focus. This is when we must reevaluate, and make adjustments to our plan to continue to fit our ever-changing needs and environment.


This is included, not to say that relapse is inevitable, but to illustrate that change is not linear. Change is a process that goes up and down, not in a straight line that continues going up and up. Relapse is a normal occurrence when trying to change. No one is perfect and it should not be expected that when we try to change a behavior that it will stick the first, second, or third try. Relapse does not say anything about who you are as a person, it just means that we need to try something different to get the change we want. Relapse is a teacher; something wasn’t going right, and it’s time to look at what lead to this so that we may navigate it in a healthier way next time. When we relapse, we can be thrown back into any of the previous stages again. You could go back to the contemplation stage, or the preparation stage, or straight into the action stage again, it is different for every individual and their particular process. It is good to pay attention to how you relapse.

That is a brief overview of the five stages in the cycle of change, which surely isn’t exhaustive. My hope is that you can look at those stages of change and identify where you are in that cycle, and what you might need to do to transcend into the next stage. As I have seen in my experience working with many different clients, and in my own personal process, we can get stuck in any stage of the cycle. For some moving from preparation to action is the hardest, and for others moving from contemplation into preparation is the hardest, and many times going from action to maintenance stage proves to be a challenge in its own right. Regardless, it deserves to be celebrated that you’re even considering change. It means that you want to become a better version of yourself, and it is the ultimate act of self-love. Talk to others who have or are making the change that you want to make, read books or forums that will give you insight into the change you want to make, and don’t forget to give compassion and understanding to yourself throughout the process. Look around and realize that most every person you see is trying to make some change in their life, big or small. It ain’t easy, but we’re all in this together!