6 stages of change model to overcome substance abuse

6 stages of change model to overcome substance abuse
Written By: Counselling Psychologist
M.Sc. Psychology - Swansea University, UK.
Reviewed By: Counselling Psychologist
MA Psychology Pennsylvania State University, USA
Last Updated: 18-03-2023

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It must have begun with a few drinks or a tiny pill to erase your feelings of pain. Deep down, you must have known this could lead to addiction, but you were quite firm in your belief that you have that kind of self-control. However, unfortunately, soon, you found yourself out of control.

Many people have gone down the same road. They do not specifically choose this behavior, but it is the small choice people make on a daily basis that makes them reach a point where coming back is difficult.

Substance abuse of alcohol kills about 3 million people every year (WHO, 2018). If you have planned on overcoming your addiction, then kudos to yourself.

The stages of change model give us a stepwise pathway to overcoming substance abuse

The Recognition

More often than not, people deny the fact that they are caught up in an addiction loop. It can take months or even years of unwanted or negative consequences of their behavior to realize their substance abuse issue. When people realize it is time to make changes, it makes the change so hard because adapting to this lifestyle was extremely easy, and dropping it- is the exact opposite.

The Decision

Once the denial is out, and the real problem is recognized, you may see hope for yourself in overcoming this issue and then make a decision to change. Most people set realistic goals of what change means to them. Some may want to quit altogether, while some may want to reduce the use of the substance. Alternatively, perhaps you have a target to quit drugs but not alcohol. It varies, and only you know what works for you. Therefore, the second step to overcoming your substance abuse is to set the best target before you jump into changing your addiction.

The preparation

As the goal is set, preparation is required to bring about the change. You will need to prepare how you plan to achieve your goal. If you aim to reduce your drug intake, how much should you reduce? You may also require some necessary resources. This could be nicotine patches if you are planning to quit smoking. The next step in preparation is to get rid of any triggers associated with your substance use. Such triggers can induce cravings. Triggers are any emotions attached to your addictions or memories, or thoughts (RCA, n.d.). You can also ask your friends and family to help you overcome this change.

The Action

Most individuals who want to overcome substance abuse directly jump to this stage, which mostly ends up in relapse. This stage is where the real change of behavior takes place. It can be very stressful but can also be fruitful if done right. A great deal of time and patience is needed on your end. This stage can be done in small, gradual steps.

The Maintenance

The maintenance stage is the most challenging one as you need to continue the progress started in the action phase. During this stage, you will need to uphold the goals set in the preparation stage and behaviors initiated in the action stage. Some people, at this stage, become satisfied and assume the fight is over. However, maintaining your goal is the actual fight. Here, they think a little break will not affect them.

New stressors may appear in your life, and during the action phase, you will need to learn more healthy ways of coping so that your substance abuse/addictions do not relapse in this maintenance phase.

The Relapse

Relapse is common. Do not give up on yourself; if you relapse, you have not failed! This is a part of the progress and a stronger way of your change. It can be frustrating, and you may lose your motivation for overcoming your substance abuse, but this can be your chance to learn from your mistakes and identify the triggers so you can correct them and begin again.

There are several therapies if you need them; however, that will require some finances. You can join support groups to meet people like you that may encourage you in your change process. “Though no one can go back and make a brand-new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand-new ending.” – Carl Bard.


DiClemente, C. C., & Prochaska, J. O. (1998). Toward a comprehensive, transtheoretical model of change: Stages of change and addictive behaviours.

RCA, recovery centre of America. (n.d.). https://recoverycentersofamerica.com/blogs/how-to-identify-substance-abuse-triggers-and-cope-with-cravings/

WHO, World Health Organization. (2018). https://www.who.int/substance_abuse/en/

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