Friday, March 18, 2011

STAGES OF CHANGE, submission by Jane Buckingham

A recent theme of SIT’s student newspaper The Sparkling Goat was CHANGE. What an appropriate topic, especially as we contemplate the seasonal changes that happen in the natural world, and also the variety of transitions that occur for students during their programs with SIT. As the saying goes, change is the only constant in life.

On the first floor of the Student Center, there is a change machine next to the student mailboxes. Insert your dollar and you receive 4 quarters in return. Wouldn’t it be great if we could put in a request for change in our lives and a machine delivers it just like that? There is much in our lives that we don’t have control over – the weather, the economy, other people’s behavior, to name a few. But what about those situations where we may have some control, or at least some influence. Perhaps you have aspirations for making change in your life – giving up smoking or alcohol, developing an exercise program, or practicing assertiveness in your relationships. How do people make lasting change in the areas that are most important to them?

James Prochaska, PhD. et al in the book Changing for Good identifies 6 phases that illustrate where people are psychologically and behaviorally at different points in the change process:

Pre-contemplation – The person is not currently considering change. S/he may not be consciously aware that there is even an issue, unaware that change is desirable or possible. The pros of continuing the behavior outweigh the negatives.

Contemplation –The person may acknowledge that there is an issue and is tired of feeling “stuck,” but may be very far away from making a commitment to change. People in the contemplation phase typically think a lot about the problem but do not take action for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they don’t have a specific plan or skill set for making the change, or are afraid of failure. People can remain in the contemplation stage for months or even years.

Preparation –Most people in the preparation stage are preparing to take action in the next month or so. They may make a public announcement about their intention and may have already started to make some adjustments. Awareness in this stage is high; using this time to develop a careful and detailed plan of action is very important instead of jumping right into action without a strategy. If you are planning to give up an addiction, it is very important to get medical and social support – don’t try to go it alone!

Action – In the action stage, people outwardly modify their behavior – stop smoking, remove all alcohol from the house, join the gym, attend a skills training, etc. The risk here is to equate action with the final goal. In fact, all the stages of change starting with pre-contemplation will contribute to your ultimate success.

Maintenance is a critical continuation phase that can last from a few months to an entire lifetime. This aspect of behavior change is often overlooked. The skills needed to sustain the behavior may be different from those needed to begin the behavior. This is an important time to consolidate the benefits of the action stage and be mindful of triggers that could lead to setbacks.

Recycling, sometimes referred to as relapse, is a time when the old behaviors return. Though not inevitable, the recycling phase is fairly common. It is tempting at this point to feel ashamed, frustrated, and pessimistic about making lasting change. However, the majority of people who relapse do not go all the way back to the pre-contemplation stage. In fact, there is much learning that can happen during the recycling stage which can then be applied to starting anew.

There are obvious limits to any stage model, including this one –the process is not linear and the average person may not experience each stage in a distinct way. However, the ideas presented here can serve as a roadmap as you contemplate making change in your life. Developing the necessary skills and support will increase your chances of success. Above all, be compassionate with yourself and with others who are attempting to develop new behaviors. If you would like some assistance with making change in your life, please feel free to contact us in the SIT Counseling Office. We would be pleased to help guide you in this process.

Jane Buckingham
Director, Counseling and Disability Services 258-3367
Judy Greenberg
Mental Health Counselor 258-3390

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