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The 6 Stages of Beating an Addiction


No matter what type of addiction you or a loved one may be facing, the road to recovery is a long and complex one. It all seems so daunting, the idea of “change.” As human beings, after all, on many levels we are wired to resist change. We’d rather stay in our comfort zones! When dealing with addiction, therefore, we find all sorts of reasons to stay comfortable and reject change, from complete denial of any problem to lack of willingness to do anything about it. The stages of beating an addiction, therefore, are essentially the “stages of change” – a model that’s been around for several decades which demonstrates how change in habitual behaviour occur cyclically through a continual process. In this article we’ll explore that cycle, how it can help us identify the stages of addiction recovery and how to increase chances of a successful recovery.


The Six Stages of Change

Let’s start off by looking at the cycle in its entirety.

Stages of Change

The six stages are:

  • Precontemplation Stage
  • Contemplation Stage
  • Preparation Stage
  • Action Stage
  • Maintenance Stage
  • Relapse Stage

Notice in Diagram 1.1 above, there is an “exit” point at the Maintenance Stage. This is the ideal scenario, where one has successfully completed recovery (one is never “cured” of an addiction, of course, but one can be sober for years, decades and ideally the remainder of a lifetime) and is called “Termination” in some models. The other departure from Maintenance Stage is Relapse – the dreaded but all-too-common recurrence of use that starts the addiction cycle all over again. We’ll go into detail about all these stages and how they interact with one another.

Whether you’re in the cycle for the first time, or are experiencing / witnessing relapse, just remember: ‘Fear Not, Judge Not.’ Addiction is a physiological disorder, an “illness” as many call it. Millions of people have overcome addiction, and you can, too.

We find it helpful to break the process down into stages, to understand on a logical level how one deals with the prospect of change and the willingness and ability to recover. That may be easier said than done for someone facing their own addiction, but it’s at least a start in gaining confidence that recovery is within reach. If you’re reading this and are concerned about a friend or loved one who is struggling with addiction, understanding these stages is quite useful in the process of helping that person.

Stage 1 – Precontemplation (aka “Problem? What Problem?”)


In this model of change, Stage 1 translates to the “Denial” phase with which many addicts and those around them are all too familiar. The name “Precontemplation” suggests that the person who needs to change has not yet begun to think that change is even necessary. They might be aware on some level (more in the subconscious) that their behaviour is less than ideal, but in their conscious mind, this behaviour is hardly a “problem” or “abuse.” This is where we hear all forms of denial, from the innocuous “I’m fine” and “it’s not a problem” to the more caustic “you don’t know what you’re talking about” or “YOU’RE the one with a problem!” Perhaps they’ve not yet experienced the negative consequences associated with this behaviour, or maybe it’s a denial about the degree to which these consequences are negative or harmful.

If you are in the Precontemplation stage of an addiction and are reading this… well, let’s be honest, you’ve probably tuned out by now. Hopefully you’ll come back at some point, at a later stage in the recovery cycle, and will recognize how you’d felt in the Denial / Precontemplation stage way back when.

If you have a friend or family member whose addiction is in the Denial stage, you’re probably experiencing significantly high frustration and angst by this point. You recognize that they have a problem and you want to help them but – in a bitter twist of irony – not only do they not recognize the problem, they’ve probably shunned you for bringing it up. You have our greatest empathy, dear reader, as this is a difficult and trying time indeed. Take solace (however possible) in knowing that you care about your loved one and are trying to do the right thing for them. Don’t give up! They’ll come around, eventually, and when they do, they’re going to need you. Read on to find out more.

Stage 2 – Contemplation (aka “Okay, So Maybe There’s a Problem”)

Congratulations on coming to terms with the problem that is your addiction. Seriously. Yes, there’s a long road ahead. But acknowledging the problem is the first step on that journey. Also, “acknowledging” doesn’t necessarily mean “admitting.” You’re not a failure or a loser or a degenerate, not by any means! Quite the contrary: By recognizing the problem (illness), you’ve shown that you’re a stronger person by at least contemplating change and its many possibilities.

If you’ve seen a family member or friend come to this point? Phew! There IS a light at the end of the tunnel. For those friends and loved ones, this is the time not to say “I told you so” but rather to be non-judgmental, objective and equal parts helpful (offer suggestions & possibilities in a tactful, caring manner) and open-minded (“listen”).

Now’s the time when the person suffering from addiction is willing to look at things in a different light. It’s not a full or even specific commitment to change, but rather an acknowledgment that what they’ve been doing up until now might not be the “right way” or “best” thing for them. They tend to be more open to constructive suggestions at this phase, and would possibly be willing to change, curtail, moderate or adjust the behaviour.

The entry to this stage might have a quick onset, a sort of “light bulb” or “aha!” moment, but more likely it will be a gradual process, one that tests the patience of those around the addict but can pay off in positive results. shutterstock_1082734184

Stage 3 – Preparation (aka “How Do We Fix the Problem?”)

Transition from Contemplation to Preparation is demonstrated when the person struggling with addiction starts to make plans for solving the problem. This is pre-action stage, mind you, but very positive nonetheless as the addict realizes that he or she needs to make changes and is willing to put together a roadmap to get there. This could include sketching out:

  • Specific changes that need to be made (the “desired result”, i.e. quit smoking)
  • How to make those changes (the “goals” & “targets” – i.e. reduce to X number of cigarettes by X day, start the nicotine patch and be off cigarettes by Y day, etc.)
  • What resources are needed to do that (i.e. talk to the doctor, buy the patches, etc.)
  • Eliminating Triggers (throw out lighters & ashtrays, etc.)
  • Gathering Support (letting friends & family know you need their help; avoiding contact with people still practicing this behaviour)

All of these are important steps. And they can be made more or less in this order, though with overlap and definitely not mutually exclusive. The best part? It all leads towards eventual action!


Stage 4 – Preparation (aka “Let’s Fix the Problem!”)

This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road, so to speak.

Change starts to be realized when action takes place.

shutterstock_508093606For addiction, this means cutting back on or eliminating the behaviour in question. Some examples:

  • Reducing the number of cigarettes smoked daily and using a nicotine patch
  • Entering a substance abuse program
  • Starting a weight loss program
  • Cutting off access to pornography

Action can take place in smaller “sub-stages,” or it might be one giant step. Different addictions in different people call for different action plans.

For those who are embarking on this course of action: Big ups to you! Change is never easy. You’ve made a courageous choice to depart from your path of comfort, and you’re doing what’s right. Remind yourself of that each morning. And know that you have people around you who want to help you succeed.

If you have a loved one who is taking action to beat their addiction, they may very well need you now more than ever. It’s a tough journey, and the temptations to revert to those old, comfortable ways are ever-present. Your loving support will help bolster their chances of conquering this illness and making a successful recovery.

Stage 5 – Maintenance (aka “I’ll never forget that I have a problem”)

As we said before, addiction is illness that does not have a cure.

shutterstock_1201726579Instead, when someone has completed the initial recovery, it’s vital to remember that the addiction will always be present. That means a constant need for vigilance and strength. Abstinence from the behaviour must be maintained. Over time one may very well be presented with temptations, and that gets challenging when one’s guard is even slightly lowered.

Don’t forget what it took to get yourself to this point. Always remember what you’ve accomplished and know that you have the strength to maintain a healthy life.


Stage 6 – Relapse (aka “The Problem is Back”)

Nobody wants to see their best efforts undone. In a perfect world, everyone would eventually exit the Maintenance stage into what’s called “Termination.” In other words, ideally one would be “recovering addict” who is sober or abstinent for the rest of their lives.

shutterstock_525198115Despite the best intentions, however, relapse can and does happen.

There’s no shame in this. Don’t kick yourself or put yourself down. Never judge a loved one or chastise them – they need your support!

Relapse means starting the cycle over again. Hopefully this time, the addict will move through Stage 1 quickly and realize in short order that change once again needs to take place.

How Capital Choice Counselling Helps with Addiction in Ottawa

Addiction is not something to face on your own. Even if you have friends and family supporting you, seeking help from a counsellor who specializes in addiction can exponentially increase your chances of a successful recovery. Contact Capital Choice today to be connected with an addiction recovery specialist, and start making positive and long-lasting change in your life or in the life of a friend or loved one. We’re here to help.