When I think about change, do you know what I see?
Before and Afters.
There’s a thrill in knowing that when I swipe right, I’m going to be rewarded with a picture of complete and total transformation. The subject doesn’t even matter; homes, bodies, haircuts, and any manner of organizing projects.
Before and Afters are fun.
But you know what they miss? All the work in between. The struggle, the sweat, the sheer dedication. As much as I love a good swipe, I have to acknowledge that you can’t go from before to after without the middle.
And that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
After all, addiction recovery is a process. You have a before. You’re aiming for after. But it takes a whole lot of effort in the long, drawn-out middle to establish lasting change.
Science backs this up too. Let’s take a look at what research tells us about the science of change and its relationship to addiction recovery.
The Stages of Change: A Proven Process for Recovery
To start, we need to understand The Stages of Change Model, a process respected in scientific circles for over five decades.
Researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente first observed the steps outlined below as they worked to understand how a person might shake the habit of smoking. And as time went on, the same series of events proved true for people attempting to make changes in various other ways, including those hoping to reach lasting sobriety from drugs and alcohol.
Consider The Stages of Change Model as a winding road that forms one main loop with lots of exit and entry points along the way. After all, true change often comes after months or years of a person staying the course, getting off the path for a bit and finding their way back on again.
As you read through the six stages listed below, as outlined by VeryWell Mind, keep the picture of a long, winding road in mind.
Stage 1: Precontemplation
You might refer to this as the season where everyone else but you knows you need to change. Or maybe you’re aware deep down that something is amiss, but you aren’t planning to do anything about it.
Stage 2: Contemplation
In this stage, life begins to hold a mirror up to your actions as if to say, “This behavior is not okay.” You may go back and forth from staring into that mirror and looking at your world through rose-colored glasses.
Stage 3: Preparation
In this stage, small steps of preparation are key, and ideas run the gamut. You might focus on making a list of resources and ideas for addiction treatment. Or you may start by making one simple move—a phone call, an internet search—toward your future sobriety.
Stage 4: Action
In this stage, your list becomes a reality as you begin to take action on your plans. You might notice that your success or failure in this stage lines up closely with how much thought you put into the previous stages.
Stage 5: Maintenance
Maintenance is the stage where you put your blinders on and coast. You may avoid places, people or activities that encourage you to drink or do drugs. You’ll continue to build a lifestyle full of healthy habits and recognize the good in sobriety.
In this stage, you may slip up a time or two. Or you might just fall apart completely. Maybe you’re surprised to find that relapse is an official part of the journey toward change, but it is. When you choose sobriety after relapse, you’ll do so with renewed confidence.
Though change often requires a trying journey, it is well within your reach. Just keep moving forward, and you’ll find your way back on the path again.
There’s a Scientific Reason Why Change Takes Time
We all understand some of the basic reasons people struggle to change:
- A busy schedule
- A lack of willpower
- Fear of failure
And you can probably add your own unique struggles to this list. After all, as humans, we have both common and individual hurdles to hop in order to reach lasting change.
Gretchen Rubin, the author of Better Than Before, a book about habit change, emphasizes the importance of recognizing our unique struggles by encouraging readers to enlist various combinations of her 21 strategies for building better habits.
She explains, “Many experts suggest one-size-fits-all solutions for habit change—and boy, it would be great if there were one magical answer that helped everyone. But we’re all different, so different strategies work for different people.”
And this is true for addiction treatment as well. The right treatment center will determine a person’s needs based on the center’s experience helping others in a similar situation and work to understand the unique history and challenges of the individual.
Because every person varies, professional addiction treatment is incredibly beneficial for someone hoping to achieve lasting change. And yet, every person struggling to overcome a substance misuse issue faces one powerful preventer of change: the brain.
Why The Addicted Brain Deserves Some Extra Grace
Drugs and alcohol reward the user with a big dopamine dump—offering good feelings to reinforce unhealthy behavior. But it goes beyond that. This large dose of dopamine also leaves an imprint on the brain’s memory and learning functions so that a person involuntarily seeks out the harmful substance when they want to feel good again in the future.
Harvard Health Publishing explains it this way: “Addiction exerts a long and powerful influence on the brain that manifests in three distinct ways: craving for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite adverse consequences.”
In other words, addiction and the brain form a nearly-impenetrable bond. They don’t want to be messed with. It’s almost as if a person must access a secret compartment of the brain to fight against the rest of the brain in order to gain back control. What a battle!
And here we have another vote for utilizing multiple strategies toward lasting change: “Recovery from addiction involves willpower, certainly, but it is not enough to “just say no”—as the 1980s slogan suggested. Instead, people typically use multiple strategies—including psychotherapy, medication, and self-care—as they try to break the grip of an addiction.”
And here’s why: if your brain—you know, the boss of your body—consistently tells you that the only way to feel good and experience happiness is to do drugs or misuse alcohol, you may find yourself in what feels like a no-win situation. I can be sober and miserable or high and happy.
Sarah Hepola, author of the memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, sums up the struggles of early sobriety in this way:
“Sobriety wasn’t supposed to be like this. I thought when I finally quit drinking for good, the universe would open its treasure chest for me. That only seemed fair, right? I would sacrifice the greatest, most important relationship of my existence . . . and I would be rewarded with mountains of shimmering, clinking gold to grab by the fistful . . .
Instead, I woke up at 5 a.m. each day, chest hammering with anxiety, and crawled into the closet for a few hours to shut out the unpleasant voices.”
Even when a person wants to change—works to change—it can be so challenging.
Treatment Moves Change From Possible to Probable
As Recovery Answers explains, while moving from addiction to sobriety can be tough, it helps to view the problem as similar to chronic disease in that both can change a person’s biology and both are treatable.
We’d also add that both a person with either chronic disease or a person with a history of addiction benefit from professional help.
An addiction treatment center can facilitate your move through The Stages of Change, encouraging you to start with small steps, take action, stay the course and return from relapse.
They’ll also offer specific strategies for lasting change, including hands-on help for getting through withdrawal and the holistic approaches of therapy and habit formation.
With time, your brain can recover, undoing the damage incurred by drug or alcohol misuse. And you’ll find yourself on the other side of change—looking forward to a bright future full of the joys that a healthy, well-adjusted life brings.
We’re talking about a Before and After for the ages. One with a hard-fought middle that will encourage others as they drive on and off the road through the Stages of Change.
You might find yourself saying, “If I can do it, you can do it. Change isn’t easy. It takes time. But it’s so worth your every effort! Let me tell you where I was. Let me tell you where I’m at. And let me tell you how I got here.”
And if you need someone to share their story with you today—to encourage you—that’s what we’re here for.
Change is possible. The Right Step DFW can help. Call us today at 844.675.1557
By Stephanie Thomas
Contributing Writer with Promises Behavioral Health