Addiction Treatment: The 5 Stages of Change

Man on ladder climbing out of a hole.

Approximately 21.5 million American teens and adults have a substance use disorder, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Professionals such as counselors and social workers can help these individuals by understanding the nature of the recovery process and how they can professionally contribute to recovery. Divided into five stages of change, this process both describes the mental states of addicted individuals and identifies what they need from practitioners to be successful in their efforts.

5 Stages of Change


Precontemplation is the earliest stage in the change process and is defined by clients’ unwillingness or inability to accurately identify their problematic behavior. Addicted individuals usually believe that their patterns of behavior are normal and that the pros of their substance use outweigh the cons.

In this phase, practitioners can help their clients make the connection between addiction and the problems they face or may face in the future. Practitioners do this through building client trust, raising concerns about risky behaviors and providing clients with information about their disease.


When addicted individuals enter the contemplation phase, they begin to consider the possibility of change. Although they continue to behave problematically, they now feel ambivalence regarding their actions and are beginning to see the negative consequences of their conduct.

Counselors can help their clients in this phase by normalizing their ambivalence and encouraging them to explore their new feelings. They can also help clients find intrinsic motivation for change and work with them to define their values.


Preparation occurs when clients discover that the disadvantages of addiction outweigh the merits. Clients often make unsuccessful attempts to change their behavior within a year of entering this phase. They now believe change is both necessary and urgent.

Counselors can best support individuals during this time by helping them identify achievable goals for recovery, find social support and explore treatment options.


This phase is characterized by clients with addiction actively working toward changing their habits and patterns. Although clients may try out new behaviors, they are often unsure of themselves. Because these new behaviors are not yet habit, relapse is common during this time.

Practitioners can best support their clients in this phase by reminding them of the importance of staying sober. They can also help their clients identify situations that may contribute to relapse, as well as appropriate types of support.


During maintenance, individuals successfully commit to healthy behaviors and a recovery lifestyle. They demonstrate an increased ability to cope with problems in a constructive way and seek to do so in the long term.

Counselors can help clients with maintenance by encouraging them to keep up their new habits and support networks. If a client relapses, practitioners can also help clients learn from their mistakes and affirm their resilience and resolve for continuing in recovery.

A Note About Relapse

Relapse is common on the road to recovery. The word identifies a full-blown return to problematic behavior, rather than a quick slip-up. When clients experience a relapse, they then must face the question of how to deal with the consequences of their actions. Counselors can help them through this process by encouraging them to learn from their mistakes and find alternative strategies for coping, as well as helping them re-enter the recovery cycle.

The stages of change within the addiction recovery cycle are easier described than done. Counselors must realize that all persons with addiction must go through the process at their own pace and that complications are common. When the recovery cycle is successful, however, it means that individuals with addiction can gain control of their lives and reach self-sufficiency.

Sources: Australian Government Department of Health, California Society of Addiction Medicine

A Future in Care

Although choosing to help others overcome addiction can be challenging, it is ultimately a rewarding career choice. For those seeking to make a difference, the online BSW degree and the online MSW degree from Brescia University provide the opportunity to learn the skills needed to be successful in a high-opportunity field. Brescia’s fully online format allows working individuals to attend school in a flexible format designed for their personal schedule. Brescia University was named one of the best online colleges in 2017.