The 5 Stages of Change in Recovery

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Recovery is a journey that many individuals undergo as they work to overcome addiction, mental health issues, or other life challenges. This journey is not necessarily linear and involves a series of stages and personal transformations. The five stages of change model, also known as the Transtheoretical Model, is a widely recognized framework that helps individuals better understand the recovery process.

The five stages of change are: 1) Precontemplation – denial of a problem; 2) Contemplation – awareness and ambivalence; 3) Preparation – decision and planning for change; 4) Action – implementing new behaviors; 5) Maintenance – sustaining change and preventing relapse.

By breaking down the journey into stages, individuals can better comprehend their own experiences, identify areas of growth, and ultimately move toward lasting change. This article will explore each of the five stages of change in detail and provide strategies for successfully navigating through them.

Precontemplation Stage

Definition and Characteristics of the Precontemplation Stage

The precontemplation stage is the first stage of the recovery process. At this stage, an individual may not yet recognize that they have a problem or may be in denial about the severity of their addiction or mental health issue. They may feel defensive and resistant to change, often downplaying the negative consequences of their behaviors.

Common Thoughts and Feelings During This Stage

During the precontemplation stage, individuals may experience a range of thoughts and feelings that prevent them from acknowledging the need for change. These may include fear, anger, guilt, or shame. They may rationalize or justify their behavior and focus on blaming external factors, such as work, relationships, or even genetics. This stage can be marked by a general lack of self-awareness, and the individual may not yet see the value in pursuing recovery.

Strategies for Recognizing and Moving Past Precontemplation

  1. Identifying Personal Barriers

To move beyond the precontemplation stage, individuals must first identify the barriers that prevent them from acknowledging their problem. This may involve examining their beliefs and attitudes about addiction, mental health, and recovery, as well as any perceived social stigma surrounding these topics. By confronting these barriers, individuals can begin to challenge their preconceived notions and become more open to change.

  1. Increasing Awareness of the Negative Consequences

One way to encourage the shift from precontemplation to contemplation is by increasing awareness of the negative consequences associated with addiction or mental health issues. This may involve reflecting on personal experiences, listening to the stories of others in recovery, or researching the potential risks and long-term effects of their behaviors. Greater awareness can lead to increased motivation for change.

  1. Encouraging Empathy and Self-Reflection

In order to make progress in the recovery journey, individuals must develop empathy for themselves and others. This involves recognizing their own suffering, as well as the impact of their behaviors on loved ones. By engaging in self-reflection, individuals can begin to gain insight into their thoughts, emotions, and patterns, which can help them see the need for change more clearly.

Contemplation Stage

Definition and Characteristics of the Contemplation Stage

The contemplation stage is characterized by an increased awareness of the need for change, yet individuals may still feel ambivalent or uncertain about taking action. They may begin to weigh the pros and cons of change, carefully considering the potential benefits and challenges associated with recovery.

Ambivalence and Weighing Pros and Cons

During the contemplation stage, individuals may feel conflicted about whether or not to pursue recovery. They may be aware of the negative consequences of their behaviors but may also fear the challenges and sacrifices associated with change. This ambivalence can lead to feelings of doubt, confusion, and even paralysis, making it difficult to move forward in the recovery process.

Strategies for Moving Forward

  1. Gaining Knowledge About the Addiction or Mental Health Problem

To overcome ambivalence, individuals can benefit from learning more about their addiction or mental health problem. This may involve researching the underlying causes, potential treatments, and success stories of others who have overcome similar challenges. By becoming more knowledgeable, individuals can build confidence in their ability to change and develop a greater understanding of the recovery process.

  1. Exploring Available Resources and Support

During the contemplation stage, it’s important for individuals to explore the various resources and support options available to them. This may include therapy, support groups, self-help books, or online forums. By familiarizing themselves with the different avenues for help, individuals can gain a clearer picture of what recovery might look like and feel more prepared to take the necessary steps.

  1. Developing a Vision for a Healthier Future

Creating a vision for a healthier future can be a powerful motivator for change. Individuals should take time to imagine what their life might look like without the addiction or mental health issue, considering the potential benefits and opportunities that could arise as a result of recovery. This vision can serve as a source of inspiration and determination as they work to overcome ambivalence and move forward in their journey.

Preparation Stage

Definition and Characteristics of the Preparation Stage

The preparation stage is marked by a decision to take action and commit to change. Individuals in this stage have resolved their ambivalence and are ready to begin planning for recovery. This stage involves setting goals, developing an action plan, and gathering the necessary resources and support to ensure success.

Decision-making and Commitment to Change

In the preparation stage, individuals have made the conscious decision to change and are committed to taking the necessary steps to achieve recovery. They are motivated, determined, and focused on their goals, recognizing that the journey may be challenging but ultimately worth the effort.

Strategies for Effective Planning and Goal-Setting

  1. Building a Strong Support Network

A strong support network is crucial for successful recovery. Individuals should seek out friends, family members, therapists, or support groups who can provide encouragement, guidance, and accountability throughout the recovery process. This network can help individuals stay motivated, navigate challenges, and maintain perspective as they work to achieve their goals.

  1. Identifying Potential Obstacles and Solutions

During the preparation stage, it’s important for individuals to anticipate potential obstacles and develop strategies for overcoming them. This may involve identifying triggers, developing coping mechanisms, and planning for setbacks. By being proactive and prepared, individuals can increase their chances of successfully navigating through the recovery process.

  1. Creating a Personalized Action Plan

An action plan is a detailed roadmap outlining the specific steps an individual will take to achieve recovery. This plan should be tailored to the individual’s unique needs, preferences, and circumstances, and may include elements such as therapy sessions, support group meetings, self-care practices, and lifestyle changes. A well-crafted action plan can provide structure, direction, and a sense of progress throughout the recovery journey.

Action Stage

Definition and Characteristics of the Action Stage

The action stage is characterized by the implementation of the action plan and the development of new behaviors and habits. Individuals in this stage are actively working to change their lives, taking concrete steps toward recovery and personal growth.

Implementing the Action Plan and Developing New Behaviors

In the action stage, individuals put their plans into motion and begin to make tangible changes in their lives. This may involve attending therapy sessions, participating in support groups, engaging in self-care practices, or implementing lifestyle changes such as exercise and nutrition. As new behaviors are developed and old patterns are replaced, individuals can experience significant progress in their recovery journey.

Strategies for Maintaining Momentum and Preventing Relapse

  1. Establishing Healthy Routines and Coping Mechanisms

Developing healthy routines and coping mechanisms is essential for maintaining momentum and preventing relapse during the action stage. This may involve establishing regular sleep patterns, practicing mindfulness, engaging in hobbies or activities that promote relaxation and stress relief, and creating a structured daily schedule. Additionally, individuals should work on developing alternative coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and negative emotions, such as journaling, deep breathing exercises, or talking to a trusted friend or therapist.

  1. Monitoring Progress and Celebrating Achievements

Tracking progress and celebrating achievements can help keep individuals motivated and focused on their recovery goals. This may involve setting milestones and acknowledging both small and large successes along the way. Recognizing personal growth and accomplishments can boost self-esteem, reinforce the value of the recovery process, and provide encouragement to continue moving forward.

  1. Seeking Professional Help When Needed

The action stage can be challenging, and individuals may encounter obstacles or setbacks that require additional support. It’s important to recognize when professional help may be necessary, such as when struggling with particularly intense emotions, experiencing a relapse, or facing a crisis situation. Seeking therapy, counseling, or medical assistance when needed can be a crucial component of successful recovery.

Maintenance Stage

Definition and Characteristics of the Maintenance Stage

The maintenance stage is characterized by the sustained practice of new behaviors and habits, as well as the ongoing prevention of relapse. Individuals in this stage have successfully implemented their action plan and have made significant progress in their recovery journey. The focus now shifts to maintaining these changes and continuing personal growth.

Sustaining Long-Term Change and Preventing Relapse

During the maintenance stage, individuals must remain vigilant in their efforts to prevent relapse and maintain the positive changes they have achieved. This may involve continuing therapy, attending support group meetings, and consistently practicing self-care and healthy routines. Individuals should also be prepared to adapt their action plan and coping strategies as their circumstances and needs change over time.

Strategies for Ongoing Success and Personal Growth

  1. Continuously Refining and Updating the Action Plan

As individuals progress in their recovery, their needs and circumstances may change, requiring adjustments to their action plan. It’s important to regularly reassess and update the plan to ensure it remains relevant, effective, and aligned with personal goals. This may involve adding new strategies, modifying existing ones, or eliminating elements that are no longer helpful.

  1. Engaging in Self-Care and Stress Management

Maintaining self-care practices and effectively managing stress are essential for ongoing success in recovery. This may involve prioritizing physical health through exercise and nutrition, practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and nurturing social connections and support networks. By prioritizing self-care and stress management, individuals can reduce the risk of relapse and maintain their overall well-being.

  1. Staying Connected with Support Networks

Maintaining close connections with support networks can be crucial for continued success in recovery. This may involve attending regular support group meetings, staying in touch with friends and family who have been supportive, or seeking out new connections with individuals who share similar goals and values. These connections can provide ongoing encouragement, accountability, and inspiration as individuals continue their journey toward lasting change.


Understanding the 5 stages of change in recovery can provide individuals with valuable insight into their own experiences, allowing them to better navigate the challenges and transformations that accompany the journey toward healing and personal growth. By applying the strategies outlined in this article, individuals can increase their chances of successfully progressing through each stage and ultimately achieving lasting change. Recovery is a lifelong process that requires commitment, self-awareness, and support, but with determination and perseverance, individuals can overcome addiction, mental health issues, and other life challenges to create a healthier, more fulfilling future.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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  1. Richard

    Great information, comprehensive and needs to be mainstreamed. Addiction is growing concerning for everyone especially our youth. Thank you, Dr. Rose for explaining the process of healing, recovery, and maintenance. Important to note, we are never alone in our challenges of daily living. There is help and hope.

  2. Jenny

    Thank you for informing the public about addiction, as I am recovering and I’m co-occurring with mental and substance use disorder. I also work in recovery to help others with what I have and helping the public learn more.


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