The six stages of change to help you establish heathier habits

Psychologists identify each stage to change for the better in “The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change.”

Motivation is a mysterious force — sometimes it’s like a wave at the ocean, pushing you toward your goal. Other times, it disappears and dissolves into nothing. Or its undertow pulls you out to sea, away from your ambition.

Like thousands of others, I gained weight during 2020, eating comfort food, carbs galore and rich desserts. In December, I decided it was time to take off my pandemic pudge.

Of course, as someone who’s battled with weight my entire life, I’ve gained and lost hundreds of pounds. I’ve been on every diet you can imagine, lost weight, got tired of dieting, gained it back, started again and given up. I always hated weighing myself — I preferred to feign ignorance.

Since I’ve always had good exercise habits, weight gain was slow, and therefore less noticeable week to week.

But somehow, this winter, something changed within me. With less fanfare, but with more commitment, I started my journey. Weighing myself every day, I slowly got over my aversion to stepping on the scale. Keeping a food diary, I’m staying within my caloric budget.

I recognized that some of my eating habits needed modification. I am eating smaller portions, more slowly and, yes, mindfully enjoying each forkful. I’ve been pleased with the results over the last three months, dropping below my pre-pandemic weight. My doctor has lowered my blood pressure medication by half because my weight loss has resulted in a lower blood pressure.

This voyage toward better eating and weight loss feels different to me. I’m less excited, but more resolute. I feel more motivated than during previous weight-loss excursions, but I don’t really know why.

The process of changing health habits is extraordinarily complex. In the 1970s, psychologists Carlo DiClemente and James Prochaska published a seminal work, “The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change,” and identified six stages of change.

Stage 1 is pre-contemplation, where the individual isn’t ready to take action. Stage 2, or the contemplation stage, is when an adult considers the pros and cons of making a shift. Stage 3 is the preparation stage, where the individual researches and explores different ways of making the change. Stage 4 is the action stage, when one actively engages in making the intended change. Stage 5 is maintaining the change, and Stage 6 is termination.

Below are some elements of behavior change:

Readiness is important. Most of us can be stuck in the contemplation stage for a long time, going back and forth between whether to launch or not to launch. Sometimes we “want to want” to stop smoking, lose weight or start to exercise. We know we should make a change for health reasons, but we aren’t quite ready yet. Sometimes an activating event, like a physician visit or a major life change, can propel us into readiness. Other times, we might read an article or have a talk with a friend that drives us toward making a commitment to do something we have been considering for a while.

Willingness to take a risk. Whenever we decide to make a change in our health habits, we have to face the prospect of disappointment. What if we stumble and fall? What if we don’t achieve our goal? This is when we want to draw from our well of resilience. It’s not about falling off the horse; it’s about dusting yourself off and getting back on. Setbacks teach us valuable lessons on how to succeed in our quest.

We all need cheerleaders. Prochaska reminds us that support from others is important in sustaining our change efforts. It helps to have cheerleaders who urge us on, celebrate our victories, and encourage us when we’re discouraged. It can be a community of fellow travelers, like in Alcoholics Anonymous, or a close friend or relative who provides emotional support.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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