Addiction is a severe and complex problem that has far-reaching effects. It’s imperative to understand the stages of addiction recovery to begin recovering yourself or support a recovering person you know,
There are five stages of addiction recovery:
- Pre-Contemplation: denial of addiction
- Contemplation: thinking about healing
- Preparation: planning a recovery
- Action: acting out a recovery plan
- Maintenance: avoiding relapses
While that is an overall summary for each of the main five stages of addiction recovery, it’s essential to understand the exact details of each stage, so you know what to expect. We’ll go in-depth into all of this in the sections below, so read on.
Stages of Addiction Recovery
The five stages of addiction recovery are taken from the Transtheoretical Model of Addiction, which was developed by three psychologists named James Prochaska, Carlo DiClemente, and John Norcross. Since its introduction in the ’90s, it has become known as the most effective way to treat addiction and support addiction recovery.
It’s important to remember that people don’t always follow these stages in order. They can skip stages, go backward, or even wholly relapse and start back from the beginning.
We’ll go into each stage more in-depth, one by one.
The Pre-Contemplation stage describes when a person has no plans to do anything about their addiction. This includes people who:
- Do not believe they are addicted
- Deny that their behavior is problematic
- Realize they are addicted but refuse to do anything about it
People who are in the Pre-Contemplation stage generally do not believe their addictive behaviors are a serious problem and take no action towards healing. They are likely to minimize the effects of their actions in their head and think they aren’t that big.
In this stage, addictive behavior can cause serious harm to themselves and others. It can:
- Cause them personal bodily injury, especially if their addiction involves substance abuse
- Damage or destroy relationships with partners, friends, and family
- Put a person in negative situations
- In the case of serious addiction, it can lead to committing crimes to aid the addiction
Denial of Consequences
People suffering from addiction tend to make excuses for their actions and circumstances. This is especially true for those in the Pre-Contemplation stage. This usually comes in the form of denying the consequences of their actions are genuinely their responsibility.
This can come in many forms. An addicted person may:
- Deny the consequences are their fault at all by shifting blame
- Try and make the damage seem less severe than it is
- Regard the consequences as just “a part of life”
They may also not see any consequences yet. In some cases, the damaging effects of addiction can be delayed or hidden, so the addicted person may truthfully not see any harm in what they are doing. This can be an obstacle in their journey because it makes the addiction appear harmless—at least at first.
Resistance to Advice
People in the Pre-Contemplation stage are very likely to be disinterested in hearing advice or suggestions. Because they don’t see themselves as an addict, or they regard their addiction as harmless, it can be challenging to attempt showing them the harm of their actions.
Even people who aren’t suffering from addiction can have a hard time listening to the mistakes they are making. The extra pressure of the addiction acts as an additional pressure keeping them from being able to admit their problems.
This can often lead to the person making rationalizations about their behavior, like:
- “I don’t drink too much. I just enjoy partying with my friends!”
- “I know smoking is bad for you, but it relieves stress, and stress is more harmful.”
- “You can’t understand what I go through, so why should I listen to you?”
In general, people in the Pre-Contemplation stage are going to be very resistant to taking any advice about their addiction and will become defensive if pushed.
People with addictions often have a dozen different reasons and rationalizations for why their addiction isn’t that bad. These reasons are often defensive measures to protect them from feeling guilt or pressure from others about their behavior.
For this reason, the first real step on the road to recovery is the Contemplation stage—or when the person begins to recognize that they have a problem.
People can often be pushed into the contemplation stage by suffering very adverse consequences from their addiction. This can take the form of:
- Loss of a friend or loved one due to their shared substance abuse
- Experiencing serious physical or emotional harm as a result of their addiction
- Causing serious bodily or psychological harm in others as a result of addiction
- Major damage to relationships they find valuable, such as their children or spouse
When a person enters the Contemplation stage, they begin to seriously think about their actions and recognize that they are not healthy. They have not taken action to mitigate their addiction yet, but they are seriously thinking about their problem and how they might solve it.
Openness to New Information
Once a person starts to think concretely about their addiction, whether because of the shock of a serious event (like those listed above) or for other reasons, they become much more receptive to new information about addiction.
In this stage, talking to an addicted person about their behavior, its effects on themselves and others, and ways they might be able to heal becomes much easier. Those in the Contemplative stage are more ready to listen to advice and have a serious conversation about their behavior and how to fix it.
How Long is Contemplation?
When someone enters the Contemplation stage, it may seem like they will begin healing very quickly. Being in the contemplative stage is a very positive step, but it is not a permanent stage. An addicted person might enter the Contemplative stage several times before actually moving forward with healing. It can be very easy for someone with a serious addiction to getting dragged back into the Pre-Contemplative stage again.
There is also no fixed or “normal” time for an addicted person to spend in this stage. As researchers for the Treatment Improved Protocol concluded:
“There is no way to calculate how long any individual should require to resolve the issues that arise at any stage of recovery.”
How long Contemplation takes can depend on factors like:
- Personality and temperament of the addicted person
- Support systems they may (or may not) have in place
- Severity and type of addiction
Those are a few, but countless variables can factor into the length of time the Contemplation stage takes.
Once a person decides to take concrete steps to manage their addiction, they enter the Preparation stage.
The Preparation stage focuses on the addicted person making plans about how, when, where, and why they are going to begin healing their addiction. Many addicted people skip this stage. They can often jump from the Contemplative stage straight to Action. Unfortunately, this puts them in a bad spot as they can face challenges they are unequipped and unprepared for, often leading to them relapsing.
Managing addiction is tough, so careful planning is a key step on the road to recovery.
Factors of Preparation
The Preparation stage boils down to an addicted person thinking in-depth about the challenges they are going to face as they move forward with healing and then creating solutions to help move past them. Questions that come up during this phase include:
- Who am I going to keep around to support me?
- How big of a change am I making?
- What tangible things do I need to have to make this change?
- How am I going to manage my relationship with friends who may still be addicted or enabling me?
- What am I going to sacrifice to make this change?
That is just a sampling—the list of questions is dependent on the person and their addiction. Since trying to untangle yourself from addiction is complicated, this process can take quite a while. It’s better to think things out than to rush them.
Choosing the Changes to be Made
Perhaps one of the most important steps in this stage of recovery is the addicted person choosing exactly what changes they want to make when managing their addiction.
First, an addicted person must decide what their goal is for their recovery. While most people’s first goal is to quit whatever their addiction is entirely in one swoop, it can sometimes make sense to tackle an addiction one step at a time. There are also cases where an addictive behavior is only harmful because it is being done in excess—like binge eating—and an addicted person only needs to cut back and not quit.
The severity of the changes they need to make depends on their situation. For some, minor changes can yield significant results in their recovery. For others, especially those surrounded by a community that partakes in or enables their addiction, it can mean actions as serious as moving to a new city to leave their old triggers behind.
The Action stage is where the rubber meets the road for a recovering addict. This is when they begin changing their behavior and fighting the addiction in their actions.
This is usually considered the most challenging stage of addiction recovery. This is where most relapses occur due to the difficulty of an addicted person putting their plan into action. It is also the stage where most diversity occurs. Since each addicted person’s past and recovery plan is different, there is no “standard Action stage.”
Types of Action
The exact types of Action someone might take in this stage depends on the type and severity of the addiction.
Some actions that may be taken in this stage include:
- Admitting themselves to a rehabilitation center (especially in cases of substance abuse)
- Introduction of new ways to cope with stress
- Refusal to spend time with old friends, or around old triggers
- Making calls to an accountability partner whenever they feel the urge to relapse
- Assuming a new identity in a new place
As you can see, the actions can range from small changes in daily habits to drastic upheavals of a person’s life depending on the severity of the addiction.
While it may be easy for an addicted person to think that they will immediately feel relief once they begin the action phase, this is not always the case. Often, they can feel odd and uncomfortable in their new life because they are so used to their old habits and way of living. This is even more true for those who make drastic life changes.
Unfortunately, this can make it all the easier to relapse and fall back into addiction. It’s beneficial for those in recovery to remember that it often gets worse before it gets better and that it takes time for their changes to become the new normal.
Once an addicted person successfully puts their recovery plan into Action, they enter the Maintenance stage. This stage often lasts for a lifetime, as a relapse into addiction is a constant possibility, although it does become easier with time.
Unfortunately, this can also lead to a false sense of security. Once addicted persons see that they have been successful in managing their addiction, it can be tempting to think they are more in control than they really are. They can tend to trivialize minor relapses by saying things like:
- “Well, how bad is one beer with dinner?”
- “I can handle a little fun.”
- “I’ve been doing so good; I think I can reward myself and not go overboard.”
Relapses are normal during a person’s addiction recovery. Those managing addiction needs to know that a relapse is not the end of their recovery story. People often go from Maintenance to Relapse to Action and return to Maintenance.
When a relapse occurs, however, it’s essential to understand why it happened. As SAMHSA points out,
“A return to drug use, properly handled, can even be instructive. With guidance, clients can learn to recognize the events and situations that trigger renewed substance use and regression to earlier stages of recovery.”
Since the danger of relapse is an ever-present reality, those in recovery are recommended to incorporate an ongoing sense of Action into their management plan. As an addicted person, recovers, the powerful drive that pushed them into recovery in the first place can fade. Their recovery becomes mundane and normal, and they may forget the severity of their past behaviors.
It can also be harmful because recovering from addiction takes a large amount of drive and perseverance. When that drive fades with time, it leaves a recovered addict all the more open to relapse.
It’s recommended that a recovering addict takes steps to remind them why they’ll never go back to their past behaviors. This can take the form of:
- Keeping photographs around of the loved ones they once hurt
- Maintaining a journal throughout recovery so they can easily read back and be reminded of how they were suffering
- When an urge arises, imagining what they would lose if they allowed their worst behaviors to control them again
In the end, it’s up to each addicted person and their support groups to decide how to provide themselves with continued motivation.
Coping with Temptation
A big part of a successful recovery is being able to cope with the added stress when healing. Temptation can pop up at any time, and having a successful plan in place to cope is key.
A few common coping strategies include:
- Replacing old habits with new, healthy ones
- Building a support group of others on the road to recovery
- Using other activities as a distraction
Important Stages of Addiction Recovery
While addiction is a complicated and often subjective problem, models like the Transtheoretical Model of Addiction help provide concrete guidance and instruction for those who are trapped in addiction or have a loved one who is suffering from it. As a reminder, here is a quick summary of the five stages of addiction:
- Pre-Contemplation: before a person accepts they must change
- Contemplation: when a person begins to think about their addiction
- Preparation: when a person begins planning their recovery
- Action: when a person acts their plan out
- Maintenance: when a person uses ongoing effort to keep addiction at bay
Those are the five key stages of addiction recovery that you need to know. This is crucial information for those who want to recover from an addiction or those who wish to support a recovering addict.
These stages provide an invaluable framework for understanding addiction and recovery, and knowing them puts you in a much better spot to move forward.