Stages of Change and How We Can Help

Stages of change

Research has shown that most people involved with an addictive behaviour go through a change spiral. This varies from person to person – some people may quit for good from their first try, others may quit following a number of attempts while gaining in skills and understanding each time.

Our aim is to help you to achieve your goals to stop the problems caused by gambling! Part of that work involves assisting you at each stage.

Here are the basic stages of change and how we can help you through change.

Stage I - Precontemplation

At this stage a person would deny they have a problem. They may react puzzled when someone tells them they have a problem, or they may even become angry and abusive. A problem gambler at this stage will ignore it when people say they have a problem. They will make excuses about the long hours spent gambling or about their mounting debt and lack of money. They may find the whole situation unreal or feel in a type of trance when they gamble.

How we can help

We don't see many 'precontemplators' because basically they do not think they have a problem. They are therefore unlikely to contact a counselling agency.

However we do see people affected by the behaviour of the person who is gambling. This includes the partner, parents, spouse, children, and other family and friends of the problem gambler.

Sometimes the partner of a problem gambler may have reached a stage of threatening to end the marriage or relationship unless the gambler seeks help. Sometimes we see people who come because their partner or employer insisted they seek help.

Generally if people don't see gambling as a problem we can work with them on what they do see as the problem.

We are respectful of each individual's ability to solve their own problems and are willing to listen and provide appropriate information and support.

Stage II - Contemplation

A person in the contemplation stage is beginning to wonder if they do have a problem. If someone were to tell them that they have problem, some contemplators will react defensively and perhaps deny it. However some will agree that they too have their concerns.

The contemplator likes to get information to help them decide about gambling – they may do internet searches (it may be why you are reading this page), call help lines, and read leaflets or books.

On a deeper level they may also be assessing what their options are if they do conclude they have a problem and want to do something about it. They may also begin to wonder what their actual goals might be if they do decide to change.

People can be contemplators for long periods of time without taking action.

How we can help contemplators:

We provide resources like this website, booklets and, more importantly non-judgemental counselling which can help the contemplator assess the pros and cons of what they are doing.

A contemplator may be surprised that we will be interested in exploring things they find good about gambling (or at least found good when they started gambling) as well as their concerns. After listening and deepening our understanding, we may provide the contemplator with information, based on research and our experiences in helping people change.

We will be happy to meet with contemplators for one or two interviews so they can really explore the issues and decide what they want to do next.

Stage III - Preparation to Change

A person in the preparation to change stage does something practical toward their change goal. For example, if their ultimate goal is to stop playing the pokies entirely, at this preparation to change stage, they may play less frequently, play with a budget, or play smaller denomination machines. An observer would be able to recognize that they have made a start toward the fuller goal of stopping gambling entirely

Preparation to change precedes the next stage - the Action stage.

How we can help people preparing to change:

With a person at this stage of the change we can both witness their achievement in cutting down and then help prepare them to move to the next stage of change.

Stage IV - Action

Many people believe this is when they should seek help – when they are clear that they have a problem and that they want to do something about it. However, as you are now aware we are happy to work with people at whatever their stage of the change spiral happens to be.

A person in the Action stage has decided that they do have a problem, have formulated a solution to that problem and are taking action based on that solution.

To put it more simply an example would be a person who has decided that they do have a gambling problem and have worked out a viable solution (e.g. to stop gambling entirely). At the action stage they would implement this solution by stopping gambling. Having stopped gambling successfully they begin to feel more positive about themselves.

Often the Actioner has felt concerned about the problem for a long time, As they take action they feel very positive to be in charge of it – rather than it being in charge of them. This has an immediate effect on their levels of stress and in a positive way on their self esteem.

How we can help a person at the action stage:

We can help a person at the Action stage by providing a range of tools to help them achieve their aims. Simply being heard can be important for an actioner – however counsellors and therapists can draw on a range of modalities to assist with the change process. These include cognitive behavioural therapy, solution focused approaches, acceptance and commitment therapy, body focus work etc. We can also make appropriate referrals to other health professionals or work in partnership with your current doctor, psychiatrist or other mental health professional.

Stage V - Maintenance

The stage which follows Action is called "Maintenance". The Action Stage is one in which the actioner can feel very positive about their achievements. They feel good about themselves, and others, such as their partner or family, also may feel very positive and complement them on what they have done.

Eventually the new behaviour becomes the norm rather than something to be acclaimed.

At this stage a person has to learn to cope with the world without "the high" of a new accomplishment and without the old gambling solution.

How we can help a person at the maintenance stage:

We can help by helping the person to develop new strategies to cope with stressors and employ strategies they already have. Sometimes people at this stage may feel like gambling – this has usually been the result of a trigger and a build up of internal stress. Having been free of the urge to gamble the person at this stage may feel shocked by its reappearance.

We can help people at this stage by assisting them to realize the normality of lapses and by providing strategies to deal with any urges to gamble. The person will have realised that in the past gambling may have served to distract them from internal stress or concerns; counselling will help to reinforce their learning about new tools to manage those stresses and concerns.

The Learning Spiral (Lapse and Relapse)

People may lapse (gamble once and stop) or relapse (begin to gamble again and continue to gamble). This will situate them in one of the stages of change again.

On one hand the consequences of a lapse or relapse may be very serious in terms of loss of income or even employment or relationship, on the other people do not lose what they have already learned, so they can regain their position as an actioner or maintainer rapidly.

If you are thinking of lapsing or have lapsed or relapsed contact us as soon as possible – we CAN help you. You can also ring the Gambling Helpline on 1800 858 858. Our goal is to help you achieve YOUR aims – we will work with you to understand the lapse or relapse and to prevent further lapses.

If you feel like lapsing - that is if you are fantasizing about gambling and feeling excited – please visualise the complete lapse in your imagination… Most people only imagine the good feelings, which are their initial reaction to gambling. However it is very important to continue to fantasize about what would happen based on past experience – after 1, hour, 2 hours, 8 hours, the next day, the next week, the next month… Inevitably you will feel miserable - fantasize this misery when you think about lapsing! The nature of gambling is you will lose if you keep gambling – those losses will result in more problems – financial problems, emotional problems, relationship problems, self-esteem problem... A full lapse will result in more bad feelings and difficulties which will overcome any excitement or enjoyment the thought of gambling may have triggered.

We do not advise people to experiment with "controlled gambling" particularly in the first 12 months of treatment – generally this compounds the problems they have already been dealing with. Most people we see have experienced loss of control in their gambling, and gambling venues are cue rich environments (sounds, lights, "atmosphere") which can trigger uncontrolled gambling. It is better for a person who has had a gambling problem to avoid gambling venues until they have the time and money to gamble but can choose not to.

Beyond the stages:

A person who has had a gambling problem may continue in the maintenance stage virtually for the rest of their life. They may always need to maintain healthy habits of dealing with stress, good patterns of communication, and clarity about their life goals. But of course these are generally healthy practices which every person needs to maintain.

Some people may move beyond maintenance to a stage of indifference to gambling. This is particularly true, in our experience, for those who are clear about how gambling met a need for them and know how to meet those needs without gambling. However it is always wise to maintain the strategies learned in the maintenance phase.

R. Quinlan 2005
Adapted from: Prochaska, J. O., DiClemente, C. C., & Norcross, J. C. (1992). In search of how people change: Applications to addictive behavior. American Psychologist, 47, 1102-1114.

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