Stages of Change

Stages of Change

Most of us face challenges in life that spur us to make big changes in our lives. The decision to stop smoking, leave an abusive relationship, or start an exercise plan are all examples of changes that improve our physical and/or mental well-being. Although many people think that making a change is all about willpower, we now have a better understanding of the process of change and what it involves. Dr. James Prochaska, a renown psychologist, noticed a pattern that occurs for people that are in the process of making a big change in their lives. He recognized that there are six stages of change.

1 – Pre-contemplation Stage: People in this stage, have trouble recognizing that there is a problem or a need for change. Those that might perceive a need for change are likely to believe that it is out of his/her control because outside factors are responsible for the problem. At this point, the person cannot be convinced that the benefit of making a change is worth the time and effort. Individuals tend to minimize any potential benefits and overemphasize the challenges involved in changing. In this pre-contemplation stage, one feels hopeless about the situation.

2 – Contemplation Stage: This is the stage where an individual begins to think about making a change but is not quite ready to take any action towards change. The benefits begin to seem more comparable to the challenges of changing. During this time, a person will explore possible solutions for change but are not yet ready to set a timeframe for when to begin the change. In this contemplation stage, one tends to feel anxious, excitement, and/or anticipation.

3 – Preparation Stage: This is the stage where one will begin planning the actions one might take and start thinking about a timeframe in which to begin the process of change. At this point in the change process, a person will perceive the benefits as outweighing the challenges of making a change, will begin collecting more information about the problem, will gather any supplies needed and will establish a support system. In the preparation stage, one typically feels ambivalent about making a change.

4 – Action Stage: This is the time in which a person takes action towards change and begins doing the steps that have been planned in the previous step. Support is extremely important during this stage because it requires the greatest commitment of time, energy and focus. Also, this can be a time in which a person experiences triggers as they transition from one behavior to another. The action stage is when change is noticed by others.

5 – Maintenance Stage: During this stage, an individual is challenged with keeping the momentum going and staying the course for at least six months. This is when a person will fine tune their behaviors and actions in a manner that is sustainable long-term. This is also the time frame in which relapse is most likely to occur due to a crisis, extreme stress, boredom, trying to overcome a plateau, or experiencing a loss in support. When relapse occurs, an individual falls back to any of the previous stages.

6 – Termination Stage: After maintaining the desired change for about two years, a person has fully integrated the change into his/her life and no longer battles the desire to revert back to previous behaviors and actions. At this point, the change is no longer something that requires time, energy and focus because it occurs naturally.

Keep in mind that most people that make a successful change go through this cycle more than once. Relapse back to a previous stage is typical and it is rare that a person goes through this process without experiencing some form of relapse. The important thing is to learn from the process. The original plan may need to be modified to suit one’s personal needs for success.

As a counselor, we are trained to identify what stage of change a client is experiencing. This allows us to meet the client right where they are and help motivate him/her towards the next stage in the change process.


If you feel like you are struggling with change, give us a call or email us at 303-353-9226 or to schedule an appointment with a counselor.

Post by: Catherine Warnock, BS