Major Life Changes Counseling How to Make Lasting Behavior Changes

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Anyone who has ever broken a New Year’s resolution can appreciate the difficulty of behavior change. Making a lasting change in behavior is rarely a simple process. It usually involves a substantial commitment of time, effort, and emotion. The stages of change (or transtheoretical) model seeks to explain and effect such change, and the science says it works in many cases.

How to Get Started

Whether people want to lose weight, stop smoking, or accomplish another goal, no single solution works for everyone. You may have to go through a process of trial and error to achieve your goal.

It’s during this period that many people become discouraged and give up on their behavior change goals. The keys to achieving and maintaining your goals are to try new techniques and find ways to stay motivated.

Change might not come easily, but psychologists have developed effective ways to help people change their behavior. Therapists, physicians, and teachers use these techniques. Researchers have also proposed theories to explain how change occurs. Understanding the elements of change, the stages of change, and ways to work through each stage can help you achieve your goals.

The Elements of Change

To succeed, you need to understand the three most important elements in changing a behavior:

  1. Readiness to change: Do you have the resources and knowledge to make a lasting change successfully?
  2. Barriers to change: Is there anything preventing you from changing?
  3. Likelihood of relapse: What might trigger a return to a former behavior?

Stages of Change Model

One of the best-known approaches to change is the stages of change (aka, transtheoretical) model, introduced in the late 1970s by researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente. They were studying ways to help people quit smoking. The stages of change model has been found to be an effective aid in understanding how people go through a change in behavior.

In this model, change occurs gradually and relapses are an inevitable part of the process. People are often unwilling or resistant to change during the early stages, but they eventually develop a proactive and committed approach to changing a behavior. This model demonstrates that change is rarely easy. It often requires a gradual progression of small steps toward a goal.

Stages of Change Examples

The transtheoretical model can help in a vast array of areas, from smoking cessation, weight loss, and drug misuse rehabilitation to lifestyle goals such as healthy eating, regular exercise, improved sleep schedules, etc. Any significant change you’d like to make in your life would likely benefit from applying the transtheoretical model.

Limitations of the Transtheoretical Model

Although the transtheoretical model can foster behavioral change, critics have pointed out several limitations:

  1. It assumes that the person is capable of rational, logical decisions and actions.
  2. It doesn’t take into account contextual factors such as income, class, occupation, etc.
  3. No defined start/end points or durations delineate each stage or the overall process.
  4. Interview tools such as questionnaires are arbitrary and unstandardized.

Stage 1: Precontemplation

– Denial
– Ignorance of the problem

– Rethink your behavior
– Analyze yourself and your actions
– Assess risks of current behavior

The earliest stage of change is precontemplation. During the precontemplation stage, people are not considering a change. People in this stage are often described as “in denial,” because they claim that their behavior is not a problem. In some cases, people in this stage do not understand that their behavior is damaging, or they are under-informed about the consequences of their actions.

If you are in this stage, you may feel resigned to your current state or believe that you have no control over your behavior.

If you are in this stage, begin by asking yourself some questions. Have you ever tried to change this behavior in the past? How do you recognize that you have a problem? What would have to happen for you to consider your behavior a problem?

Stage 2: Contemplation

– Ambivalence
– Conflicted emotions

– Weigh pros and cons of behavior change
– Confirm readiness and ability to change
– Identify barriers to change

During this stage, people become more and more aware of the potential benefits of making a change, but the costs tend to stand out even more. This conflict creates a strong sense of ambivalence about changing. Because of this uncertainty, the contemplation stage of change can last months or even years.

Many people never make it past the contemplation phase.

You may view change as a process of giving something up rather than a means of gaining emotional, mental, or physical benefits. If you are contemplating a behavior change, there are some important questions to ask yourself: Why do you want to change? Is there anything preventing you from changing? What are some things that could help you make this change?

Stage 3: Preparation

– Experimenting with small changes
– Collecting information about change

– Write down your goals
– Prepare a plan of action
– Make a list of motivating statements

During the preparation stage, you might begin making small changes to prepare for a larger life change. For example, if losing weight is your goal, you might switch to lower-fat foods. If your goal is to quit smoking, you might switch brands or smoke less each day. You might also take some sort of direct action such as consulting a therapist, joining a health club, or reading self-help books.

If you are in the preparation stage, there are some steps you can take to improve your chances of successfully making a lasting life change. Gather as much information as you can about ways to change your behavior. Prepare a list of motivating statements. Write down your goals. Find resources such as support groups, counselors, or friends who can offer advice and encouragement.

Stage 4: Action

– Direct action toward a goal

– Reward your successes
– Seek out social support

During the fourth stage of change, people begin taking direct action to accomplish their goals. Oftentimes, resolutions fail because the previous steps have not been given enough thought or time.

For example, many people make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and immediately start a new exercise regimen, embark on a healthier diet, and cut back on snacks. These definitive steps are vital to success, but these efforts are often abandoned in a matter of weeks because the previous steps have been overlooked.

If you are currently taking action toward achieving a goal, congratulate and reward yourself for any positive steps you take. Reinforcement and support are extremely important in helping maintain positive steps toward change.

Take the time to periodically review your motivations, resources, and progress in order to refresh your commitment and belief in your abilities.

Stage 5: Maintenance

– Maintenance of the new behavior
– Avoiding temptation

– Develop coping strategies for temptation
– Remember to reward yourself

The maintenance phase of the stages of change model involves successfully avoiding former behaviors and keeping up new behaviors. If you are trying to maintain a new behavior, look for ways to avoid temptation. Try replacing old habits with more positive actions. Reward yourself when you are able to successfully avoid a relapse.

If you do falter, don’t be too hard on yourself or give up. Instead, remind yourself that it was just a minor setback. As you will learn in the next stage, relapses are common and are a part of the process of making a lifelong change.

During this stage, people become more assured that they will be able to continue their change.

Stage 6: Relapse

– Disappointment
– Frustration
– Feelings of failure

– Identify triggers that lead to relapse
– Recognize barriers to success
– Reaffirm your goal and commitment to change

In any behavior change, relapses are a common occurrence. When you go through a relapse, you might experience feelings of failure, disappointment, and frustration.

The key to success is to not let these setbacks undermine your self-confidence. If you lapse back to an old behavior, take a hard look at why it happened. What triggered the relapse? What can you do to avoid these triggers in the future?

While relapses can be difficult, the best solution is to start again with the preparation, action, or maintenance stages of behavior change.

Consider reassessing your resources and techniques. Reaffirm your motivation, plan of action, and commitment to your goals. Also, make plans for how you will deal with any future temptations.

Resolutions fail when the proper preparation and actions are not taken. By approaching a goal with an understanding of how to best prepare, act, and maintain a new behavior, you will be more likely to succeed.

How to Get Help

Sometimes, no matter how determined a person is, the obstacles to change are nearly insurmountable without help–or at the very least, infinitely easier with it. For example, overcoming a substance misuse disorder generally requires the expertise of a specialist to help smooth the rehabilitation process and foster your mental and physical health. They can provide therapy, medication, and other proven supports. Talk with your healthcare provider about the options.

A Word From Verywell

Making a major change and sticking to it aren’t easy. You may be more successful in keeping your resolutions by using these steps. Many clinical programs for behavior change use the stages of change model for issues from smoking cessation to substance misuse recovery. In fact, if you go with a structured program to support your change, you might see the steps outlined here.

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