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How to Change Self-Destructive Behavior: Stages of Change

How to Change Self-Destructive BehaviorWhen you attempt to change a self-destructive behavior pattern — such as heavy alcohol or drug use, cigarette smoking or binge eating — research has shown that you will go through quite predictable stages of change on your journey to recovery.

These stages of change were first identified by Prochaska and DiClemente in 1982 and since then hundreds of studies have validated their original findings.

The stages of change are: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination.

It is useful to know which stage of change you are currently experiencing because then you can use specific, targeted strategies that will be effective in taking you to the next level in your recovery.

If you don’t use the right strategy for your particular stage of change, then your attempt at recovery can stall. This also helps to explain why rehabilitation sometimes fails.

Strategies that Can Help You Change


If you’re in the precontemplation stage of change, it means that you’re not yet ready to change because you haven’t acknowledged there is a problem and you’re in denial. If you are reading this, it may be because another person — such as a family member, friend or therapist — has directed you to do so. At this stage you need factual information about the problematic behavior. It will help you understand real and actual consequences and be better equipped to make an informed decision about whether to quit the behavior.

Another useful thing to do is to discuss the issue with a therapist, primary care physician, or friend. They can give you accurate feedback on how your behavior affects others around you and challenge your denial so that you can take steps toward recovery and health. One of the saddest things to have happen at this point is a wake-up call that involves witnessing a person close to you becoming very ill or dying as a result of the self-destructive behavior in which you are currently engaging. Alternatively, there are lots of people who model what it’s like to have a fit and healthy lifestyle and feel good physically. They can inspire you to get back on track.


At the contemplation stage of change you’re thinking about the pros and cons of continuing the problematic behavior vs. quitting, but you’re still undecided. Talk to a professional about what you think would have to happen to lead to change. Use that person to bounce off the relative merits of continuing or quitting the behavior and they will help you come to an informed decision. Clinical psychologists are well trained in getting you to think through these sorts of issues in a productive way while remaining nonjudgmental and accepting of who you are. They can assist you to make changes quicker than if you were left unaided.


In this stage of change you have decided that quitting is the way to go and you are preparing yourself for taking action on your decision. Gather information on behavior change programs or therapists specializing in the kind of behavior change you wish to make so you can choose which one would best suit your needs. Self-help groups such Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are a good option for people who can only manage “one day at a time.”


In this stage of change, you are already changing. You will need support and encouragement along the way by people who can facilitate your attendance in the program of your choice, e.g., by organizing transport, discussing issues raised in group, helping with homework tasks and reinforcing your efforts to change. Engage your family and friends in facilitating change by attending individual or groups sessions with you. Get them to help you make records of your progress.


In this stage of change you need to continue to reinforce, support and encourage the behavior changes you have already made. It’s still early days and temptations may still loom, although probably not with the same strength they used to. Enlist support to help you to continue on your recovery path and to consolidate and internalize the changes. Your new healthy behavior may not have taken root just yet and like a young sapling, could be easily trampled underfoot.

Stressful life events such as moving house, losing a job or a relationship break-up could easily undermine your progress. Just remember, you’re not out of the woods yet, so this is no time to be complacent. Telling yourself things like “I’ve been so good, it won’t make any difference if I have just one …….” is a surefire recipe for going right back to the precontemplation stage of change.

An interesting fact to bear in mind is that most people go through the cycle of change several times before successfully quitting the behavior. Think of smokers who try 10 or more times to quit before eventually succeeding! Consciously taking up other healthy behaviors at this time like a sport, a healthy diet or meditation regime may help to encourage you to continue.


Congratulations, the behaviour is no longer a problem for you!


Prochaska, J. O. (1999). How do people change and how can we change to help many more people? In: The Heart and Soul of Change: What Works in Therapy. Hubble, Duncan & Miller (Eds). Pp. 227-255. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Prochaska, J. O., & DiClemente, C. C. (1982). Transtheoretical therapy: Toward a more integrative model of change. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 19, 276 – 288.

How to Change Self-Destructive Behavior: Stages of Change

Sophie Henshaw, DPsych

Dr. Sophie Henshaw is a clinical psychologist in private practice with over 20 years' experience. She loves helping mid-career women who long to get away from hostile workplaces and bad bosses. She believes with a little imagination, escape into a free-spirited life is possible. Dr. Sophie is the author of two books: "Stressed, Depressed And Dreading Mondays" and "What Every Target Of Workplace Bullying Needs To Know." She's appeared on Channel 10, 6PR, HuffPost Live, PsychCentral, Women's Agenda, NineMSN Health, Rebelle Society and Witch. She's a regular Huffington Post contributor (under her pen name). For more, visit:

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APA Reference
Henshaw, S. (2018). How to Change Self-Destructive Behavior: Stages of Change. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 Oct 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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