Robert Westermeyer, Ph.D.

James Prochaska and Carlo Diclemente (1982) developed a model of change which is unique in many ways. First, it is empirically driven. In other words it is based on the researchers' scientific investigation of change in humans. Second, the model conceptualizes change as entailing a number of stages which all require alterations in attitude in order to progress.

Third, the model depicts change as a cycle--as opposed to an all or nothing step. The authors contend that it is quite normal for people to require several trips through the stages to make lasting change.

So in this sense relapse is viewed as a normal part of the change process, as opposed to a complete failure. This does not mean that relapse is desirable or even invariably expected. It simply means that change is difficult, and it is unreasonable to expect everyone to be able to modify a habit perfectly with out any slips.

We enter the stages of change from a state of precontemplation-- during which the idea of change is not seriously considered. The cycle begins when we start to contemplate the need for change. Hopefully we will tip the scales in favor of change and become determined to take action. Then specific alterations in thinking and behaving will be initiated. It is hoped that the alterations become accepted and eventually ingrained or automatic. If we are able to maintain our accomplishments, we exit the cycle entirely.

However, sometimes we relapse or backslide. Relapses can vary in severity, as can our reactions to them. Some relapses can discourage so much that people return to a precontemplative stage for a long time before contemplating change again. Others get right back on track, considering the antecedents to relapse, where they need to put more effort, and swiftly move back into action again.

The reason the cycle model is so attractive, is that it views change as flexible to individual needs. Some people make lasting change quite rapidly, others require a few times through the stages. Just as some can master skiing on the first try, others require a couple of seasons to get to the intermediate level.

I will now briefly highlight each of Prochaska and Diclemente's stages of change.


This is not so much a stage of change as a prelude to the formal stages. Precontemplation is when people with habit problems do not recognize, or are unconcerned, with the problem. A smoker may be so busy with his vocation that the constant hacking cough doesn't distract him enough to consider it a significant problem.

A heavy weekend drinker may not have any obligations on Sunday, so the fact that he is throwing up all morning isn't an immediate concern. A cocaine abuser may have so many using friends and engage in so many "zany" antics while high, that the thought of relinquishing the behavior, despite nosebleeds and financial constraints simply has never been contemplated seriously.

Typically other people are quite aware of the problems and may even voice their concern. In this stage, however, people with strong addictive behavior problems are almost deaf to their voiced distress. It would be easy to call this "denial," but much more accurate would be to describe Precontemplation as a state when a person is "uninformed" in the sense that no personally convincing reason for change has been presented as of yet.


Miller and Rollnick (1991) state that what frequently jars people into the next stage, that of contemplating the possibility of change, is convincing, personal and timely information--not coercion or even advice. People not yet contemplating change are not particularly open to advice, much less confrontation.

We have all had experience with someone telling us that we must change some quality of ourselves, with which we are quite content, because they deem it unhealthy, unusual or annoying. Such advice which is deemed inappropriate can be met with responses like, "There is nothing wrong with that! That's your problem, not mine!"

However, learning more about what is problematic for you specifically, being afforded data which is very relevant and convincing,--very often forces you to at least consider the option of modifying your behavior.

This may seem doubtful, in that you have probably received loads of information about your habit--why it is hazardous to your health, family and so on. Perhaps you've read a great deal on the subject. Yet none of this information seems to have made any difference. The habit endures.

It is important to understand that I am not referring to generic information, but rather information specifically catered to you. The most powerful information is that which is intimately tied to your addictive behavior, runs contrary to established expectancies and has intimate ramifications for some or many aspects of your life.

This information might come to a smoker in the form of a comment by his 5-year old that she does not want him to die if lung cancer, "Please stop smoking, daddy. I don't want you to die." For a heavy drinker, the information may come from a General practitioner in the form of lab results. "The liver panel suggests that if you continue drinking the same amount of alcohol your liver will begin to show irreversible damage in 2 years."

Keep in mind that most heavy drinkers hear about fatty liver and cirrhosis, and smokers hear about the risk of lung cancer all the time, but this information usually seems quite distant. The information provided to these people was important, individualized data from which they were unable to distance themselves.

The grand task for the early contemplator is to seize the moment. Contemplation can come and go quickly and you have to be ready to go with it in the heat of the moment. Often times we are afforded information by chance which serves to increase the desirability of change. It is very important not to miss out on the opportunity to use this information to shift gears.

It is very easy to miss out on a brief window of opportunity, a moment in which you are saying to yourself, "I've had it! No more of this! I'm doing something about this right now!" You are very vulnerable to old influences at this time, both external pressures and convincing data from within. It is imperative to tip the scale of ambivalence in order to move from contemplation to determination and action.

As we shall see, there are a number of ways that you can facilitate this transition. First it is important for you to gain an accurate, unbiased picture of your addictive behavior problem. This can be done by thoroughly assessing all short and long term consequences and then constructing a "cost-benefit analysis.", i.e. chart the pros/cons of remaining the same and the pros/cons of changing. With this information in hand, you can begin to chip away at fixed expectancies which are preventing movement.


This is a transition period between shifting the balance in favor of change and getting things moving in the that direction. Many people have fleeting moments of determination that swiftly vanish when all of the horrors involved come back into awareness. Determination will lead directly into action if you have thoroughly considered all aspects of your addictive problem realistically, if you have begun to modify expectancies and have established a goal what is conducive to your individual needs and values.

First of all, it is very important to know specifically what you need to modify in your lifestyle and what about your lifestyle is better left unchanged. Believe it or not, you rarely must "throw out the baby with the bath water" when it comes to habit change. Many people with good intentions for change believe that they must undergo drastic lifestyle and or identity change in order to alter a habit.

For example, many recovering substance abusers believe that they must abstain not only from the substance they have abused, but all that is used to enhance pleasure and reduce pain and assume some stoic lifestyle. Rarely is this drastic a lifestyle change necessary, or even ideal for lasting change. What often happens is that in the process of major personality reconstruction people find that it is virtually impossible, or that they just hate it. They eventually become discouraged and stop the whole change process.

It is also important to establish a goal which works with you. A goal which is reasonable for me may be unreasonable or inadequate for you. Our goals must be consistent with our capabilities, our values, our needs. Sometimes, especially in the field of addiction treatment, an outcome is mandated by an expert as the only realistic goal.

In fact, in the field of alcohol abuse treatment people who do not wish to conform to the goals mandated by the 12-step approach are often criticized, told that they are in denial and that it is not an option form them to aspire to anything but total abstinence. Not only is this tyranny, but it is completely inappropriate given what research has demonstrated about lasting change and problem drinkers.

In the last two decades science has confirmed that for non-severe problem drinkers, moderation is a viable and attainable goal (e.g. Sanchez-Craig, et al.,1984; Miller, 1980. 1981; Marlatt, 1989). In Mark and Linda Sobell's thorough treatment guide for working with non-physically dependent problem drinkers, the authors state that research suggests that people can benefit from very brief interventions, One study found that clients benifited equally, whether they took part in a group treatment program or merely read self-help material (Skutle and Berg, 1987).

The Sobells contend that conventional treatment approaches for less than severely impaired alcohol abusers may be inappropriate. Furthermore, it has been found that self selection of treatment goals by non-physically dependent problem drinkers enhances motivation (Sobell et. al. 1992).

I agree that many people should not drink at all due to all the problems alcohol has caused them. Nonetheless, the vast majority of people with drinking problems are not seriously dependent and disabled by the habit (Sobell & Sobell, 1993). Most problem drinkers drink heavily in certain situations and are productive in other areas.

Within this group, there are those who decide to change heavy drinking patterns. Many quit altogether, others change from a pattern of heavy drinking to one of moderate drinking. Does this mean that professionals should advocate moderation as a choice for all individuals with drinking problems.

Absolutely not! Research supports the moderation alternative for the non-physically dependent problem drinker with a short heavy drinking history--not the severely impaired drinker who has consumed heavily for a long period of time.

Is moderation a legitimate outcome? Many would consider anything short of total abstinance as a goal for a heavy drinker to be a failure. "The person was a heavy drinker, now they are a moderate drinker. They are still drinking, which is unhealthy." I would argue that cutting down the amount of alcohol consumed is a tremendous success.

It would certainly be nice if everyone engaged only in behaviors that were completely healthy. But in the real world, very few behaviors meet this criterion. Furthermore, goodness and badness occur along a vast continuum and are subject to individual interpretation. Any movement toward better health, no matter how small by outside standards, is a success, whether this movement is part of a larger plan or an ultimate goal in and of itself.

This view is based on a model of change that is the foundation of addiction care in The Netherlands, Australia and some parts of the UK-- that of Harm Reduction. Simply, any movement toward bettering yourself, toward self-improvement, whether it is drastic or a minor modification is positive.

Moving from heavy drinking, such that work, family and physical health was seriously impaired to two glasses of wine per evening, has turned a behavior which was seriously impairing many aspects of his life, to one that has reduced risk, or harm, many fold.

Certainly quitting alcohol all together would be great! but this goal represents the most drastic of changes, one that many may not be able to attain. There are an infinite number of modifications which move progressively toward that ultimate goal, all of which are positive IN AND OF THEMSELVES.

Your goal for change does not have to be all or nothing. It is unfortunate that so many people believe that the only change worth making is complete personality overhaul. Without a doubt his mandate has led to a great deal of discouragement. Any change in the direction of health and happiness is wonderful.

If you can completely eliminate every aspect of your addictive behavior problem, and if this goal suits you well, then FANTASTIC! If you decide that only partial movement would make your life infinitely better, in fact much better than complete elimination of the behavior, then that is FANTASTIC too! There are no models that accurately predict happiness for everyone. Only you can decide what will make you the most happy!

Consider another example: a smoker who goes through two packs a day who relapses invariably 2 or 3 weeks after quitting. Finally he decides that he really doesn't want to give up tobacco completely but he knows that cutting down never works. He ultimately makes the decision to quit smoking cigarettes and instead have one expensive cigar every other evening. He has reduced the amount of tar and nicotine and no longer takes smoke into his lungs.

He is still engaging in a behavior which is hazardous, but he has reduced the hazard significantly. Further, he has made moderation passionate, by only smoking expensive cigars. Two years later he still hasn't returned to cigarettes; in fact, he reports that they smell "cheap,"compared to the smell of a "number 9" from the Dominican Republic.

It would be easy for us to claim that this man has substituted one addiction for another. Perhaps, but a much less pejorative (and much more accurate) explanation would be that he has reduced the harm a bit in his life. In order to make change possible you must establish a goal which works for your life! If it only works for others, your attempts will fail, or you will just end up miserable with your new lifestyle.

Once again, it is important to understand that I am not advocating that people sell themselves short on change. Quite the contrary, my aim is to help you discover all that you are capable of doing to make your life more vibrant and spontaneous. This is why following a path which is individualized is so important. If you follow someone else's path, it may interfere so much with other aspects of your lifestyle that it will seem unbearable. Altering a habit does not have to kill you. There is no reason to punish yourself.


It is truly remarkable what people are capable of doing once sufficiently motivated and invested in a realistic goal. I have witnessed many people in awe over their inherent ability to change once they have removed barriers and have allowed themselves to tap into existing strengths.

Below are some techniques which, when added to your armory, can make lasting change more likely:

* Stimulus Control. What this means, simply, is to gain the ability to recognize "triggers" for addictive behavior, to predict outcomes before they occur and to intervene when needed to avoid relapse. As I have said, habitual behavior is by nature automatic. We go through the motions so often that the program drives itself. A person with an overeating problem may not even remember having eaten 3/4 of a bag of chips that afternoon. "I remember seeing the bag and opening it, after that I just don't know what happened."

Stimulus control techniques, as we will discuss emphasize predicting your environment, planning ahead and avoiding, what G. Alan Marlatt calls "Seemingly Irrelevant Decisions," learning to stop an automatic behavior early on as opposed to in the heat of the moment can prevent a relapse.

* Talking Back to Urges. In the throes of addictive behavior, strong, unswerving urges can plague you night and day. Learning to nip an urge early on, when it is just materializing makes it easier to control than later, when you have been immersed in the urge for an hour or so. Refer to the on-line document, "Coping With Urges" for specific techniques.

* Talking Back to Negative Thoughts. Negative emotions, like anxiety, anger and depression are triggers for many addictive behaviors. Research has supported cognitive therapy as the most effective therapeutic technique for combating various mood disorders. There are numerous resources already available which present the principles of cognitive therapy in detail

* Coping with Pressures from Others to Engage in Addictive Behavior. Many people who decide to change have not thoroughly informed friends and family of the decision, or the decision has been articulated but the seriousness has not been underscored. People can have a tremendous effect on our ability to remain true to our change efforts Furthermore, associates are sometimes not as invested in the change as we are. A drinker who decides to stop may not want to relinquish his friends, all of whom drink heavily. These people can have a tremendous influence on our decisions (often they are important to us) and can serve to spiral you into relapse, or at least make it extremely difficult to hold your ground

* Lifestyle Enhancement. A lifestyle without addictive behavior often leaves a lot of free time. What are you going to do with that free time? Many people find that because they have engaged in their habits for so long, they have not done or even thought about the other things that used to bring them pleasure. In fact these old activities may not even seem pleasurable any more.

Some people who are involved in A.A. find that they must attend a meeting or two every day, because they just don't know what to do with "dead time." Though I am not fond of the pejorative title "group addict" that is applied to these people, given that many of them find the groups to be invaluable, their lives so much more colorful and social than when they were abusing alcohol, I do believe that people can enhance their lives with activities other than , or in addition to, support groups.

When changing addictive behavior it is imperative to enhance your lifestyle with revived interests and new activities. Augmenting one's lifestyle can be hard however, especially if there are feelings of apathy or insecurity, and some guidance may prove helpful to you. Once you begin taking on new activities it can be an exciting time because you discover that the world offers so much when you are not running on addictive auto-pilot.


To maintain changes, one must have practiced living a less harmful lifestyle until doing so becomes automatic. As I said, some people may need to go through the stages several times before lasting change occurs.

Not only is this is okay, it's customary. It would be unreasonable to expects a novice pianist to be able to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata perfectly after a month of lessons. Not being able to do so should not provoke such discouragement that you give up the piano (although some people certainly do). The same is true of addictive behavior. Allowing the possibility of a slip will take some of the pressure and self-loathing away from the change process.


One of the most significant problems with the 12-step treatment model is the all-or-none manner in which relapses are construed. Regardless of the intensity, slips and relapses have always been viewed as failure, falling off the wagon, time to "start over."

I prefer to look at relapse in terms of degree. It is just so much more humane. To change addictive behavior is to learn how to behave differently in certain situations--in essence, no different than learning any other complex skill. How inappropriate it would be to have a no tolerance attitude during the toilet training of a two-year old. Imagine a "relapse", for example a wet bed after several weeks of dryness, being conceptualized as a failure. Slips and setbacks are a part of learning. In fact an integral part. It is through our mistakes that we learn where we need to put most of our efforts in the future.

Many people would consider a glass of champagne at a wedding reception, by someone who has vowed abstinence, as a relapse. Consider the implications of this. Here, a person who before initiating change was unable to control drinking at such occasions. At this wedding reception he did slip, and this is unfortunate; but he did something remarkable, he didn't have a second glass.

A relapse or a momentary slip recovered and empowered? I choose the latter. Sure, he slipped, but he also kept himself from falling full throttle into a binge of wedding reception drunkenness. I mean really, consider all the cues he has successfully fought to avoid consuming even a second drink; other's drinking heavily, music, smoking, and so on--all strongly encoding into his previous drinking program. Though slipping momentarily, he has evidenced new control, that of keeping a lapse from becoming full blown. Success!

Many would disagree with my definition of a successful relapse. But consider what might occur if this individual was confronted by some well meaning alcoholism "expert" who was harsh with him, stating something to the effect of, "Well you've done it now Dan! You've fallen off the wagon! I warned you about coming to the wedding! You can't go to events like this. You didn't work your program! You've got to start all over tomorrow. I suggest that you get a sponsor to prevent this sort of thing reoccurring."

How is this approach going to make poor Dan feel? Miserable, like a failure. Very often, these sorts of feelings are precipitants to drinking. So what is this "failure" likely to do when he gets home? Drink to medicate these feelings of hopelessness and helpless, of course!

Use the stages of change as a gauge or barometer for your motivation. Do you feel your drive for change waning? How can you get yourself back on track--from a state of contemplation to one of determination and action? How can you increase the desirability of change?


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Marlatt, G.A. (1985). Lifestyle Modification. In G.A. Marlatt & J.R. Gordon, Relapse Prevention. New York: Guilford Publications.

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Sobell, M.B., Sobell, L.C., Bogardis, J., Leo, G.I., & Skinner, W. (1992). Problem drinkers' perceptions of whether treatment goals should be self-selected or therapist selected. Behavior Therapy, 23, 43-52