What Makes an Addict Willing to Change?

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What Makes an Addict Willing to Change?

Changing behavior is tough. Ask any parent.  And if the behavior is an addiction, “tough” translates as “nearly impossible.” But the operative word there is “nearly.”

It is possible to change, even to overcome addictions, if one can develop a strong enough desire.  Researchers now know a good deal about how to develop that necessary willingness, says California psychologist Tom Horvath. For starters, it helps to know that there are “stages of change” – it doesn’t happen in one step.

Regardless of the severity of their addictions, people’s willingness to overcome them crosses a wide spectrum. For one person, making an unfortunate remark (after having had a second drink) is enough to decide to stop drinking. For another person, losing home and family because of enslavement to cocaine is not enough to decide to change.

This range of willingness to change has actually been well studied and described. The “stages of change” were found by comparing people who change their addictions (and other problematic behaviors) by themselves, with individuals who got outside help for these same problems. As it turns out, the stages are the same for both groups:

Precontemplation.  Precontemplators do not want to change their addictions. They may not even consider addiction a problem. They are usually unwilling to think much about their addictions.

Contemplation.  Contemplators are well aware that a problem exists, and they are seriously considering doing something about it. They devote some time to thinking about what they might do and weigh the costs and benefits of the addiction as well as of different ways to change it.

Determination.  During this stage, the individual begins to take small steps toward solving the problem and commits to taking major steps within a month.
Action.  This is the stage of major effort and behavior change. It is the most visible of the stages and is defined as lasting from one day to six months of successful action.

Maintenance.  This is the “relapse prevention” stage. Short-term success has occurred during the action stage.  Now long-term projects are the focus. Progress on them makes a return to the addiction less and less desirable, and less and less likely.

Termination.  If between two and five years have gone by without a return to the addiction, and all craving has gone away, it is reasonable to consider the formerly addicted individual as now entirely free of the problem.

Relapse.  Although termination is the desired endpoint of the change process, in reality most individuals cycle through the stages several times before termination occurs.  For instance, someone might slip from Maintenance to Contemplation and stay there for a period of time before Action is again engaged in. Fortunately, once someone has made it to Action, it is unlikely that he or she will fall back all the way to Precontemplation.   
There are no “pure” members of any stage of change. Because of the reality of relapse, it is important for addicts, and those who care about them, to know about each stage of change in the willingness to change process.


Adapted from Sex, Drugs, Gambling, & Chocolate: A Workbook for Overcoming Addictions (2nd Ed.), by Dr. A. Thomas Horvath. Available at online and local book­stores or directly from Impact Publishers, PO Box 6016, Atascadero, CA 93423-6016, www.impactpublishers.com or phone 1-800-246-7228.

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