My wife and I are quitting sugar. That’s the plan anyway. Unfortunately for me, there are these radium red chocolate chip muffins in the commissary where I buy lunch that I’m genetically inclined to eat. They’re the size of elephants, and the moment I break one open, my desk disappears, as does my computer, my phone, and those important Post-its thumbtacked to my corkboard might as well be leaves of an Acacia tree.
It’s not that I want to give up sugar. Besides, we don’t consume all that much—the occasional baked good or the odd teething popsicle I nab after my son goes to bed. Now that I think of it, I shouldn’t be eating those—the little guy’s molars are working through. Then again, Raspberry Lime double-dip? Come on!
Were this Prochaska’s Stages of Change, I’d be somewhere in the contemplation phase, willing to admit adjustments may be needed, though highly ambivalent regarding details. I’m happy to learn about the effect sugar has on the body, however, so long as my muffin safaris remain a possibility. Needless to say, my chances of success are not looking good.
With respect to Prochaska’s stages, Psych Central contributing author Mark S. Gold, MD, writes, “Understanding your readiness to change by being familiar with the six-stage model of change can help you choose [regimens] that are right for you.” While the model was based on close observation of individuals attempting smoking and drinking cessation, it can be more broadly applied.
And it all begins with Pre-Contemplation, a phase largely defined by non-thought. In pre-contemplation, an individual is not thinking about the “problem behavior”; in fact, he or she may not even consider the behavior problematic. Until my wife expressed the desire to eliminate sugar, I was blissfully unaware I was consuming it. Yes, I do realize when sweet things enter my mouth, but the behavior enjoyed unfettered domain over my subconscious. I am what’s called a “reluctant pre-contemplator,” citing insufficient data to even approach change.
When my foresighted spouse reminded me sugar can cause metabolic dysfunction and other chronic health issues, I graduated to the Contemplation phase. Weight gain, diabetes, impaired immune functions, heart disease, not to mention erratic exercise performance—the rationale to quit is long and thorough. Though add semi-sweet chocolate chucks and it’ll make my stapler vanish. Experts often refer to the contemplation phrase as an event rather than a stage because it results in commitment. Having entered the dark side of 30, make no mistake: I need to drop refined sugar. The pros outweigh the cons 2 to 1.
Next comes Preparation (sometimes known a Determination). It is a stage marked by detailed planning. The individual assesses the instruments of change, what will be needed, anticipating potential pitfalls and workarounds, and the overall difficultly. “Commitment to change without appropriate skills and activities,” says Dr. Gold, “can create a fragile and incomplete action plan,” which can ultimately lead to failure. I, for example, did not anticipate there would be a goliath bag of Swedish fish in the mailroom at work and before I knew it, schools of them were swimming in both my pockets.
Though fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Now I’m rationalizing (not to mention fictionalizing). As my wife likes to say, a desire without a plan is merely a wish. I know I crave sweets throughout the day, so why not bring fruit?
Had I been more forward thinking, I’d be prepared for Action, ready to implement a detailed strategy, make a public commitment, and seek external monitors to cheer me on. Resolve and thorough planning are synergistic, and nothing breeds success like success. With appropriate support, counseling, or treatment, individuals in the Action phase begin to regain things the unwanted behavior caused them to lose, including hope and self-confidence. No need to rush this stage, however. Routine is the godfather of change, so allow three to six months.
As anyone who has faced addiction will tell you, the true test of change is time (i.e. Maintenance). Arming yourself with a cache of relapse prevention skills is paramount in this phase. On a personal note: when my brother was released from an inpatient treatment center, he told me relapse is always possible. I’d be lying if I pretended a squall of fear didn’t blast through my chest. We were riding these paddle bikes on a lake that looked about 1,000 feet deep. But then he said, “You just have to brush yourself off and learn from it.”
Here, my instinct is to make a self-depreciating joke about the triteness of Swedish Fish compared to Substance Use Disorder, but no. Effecting change is not a game of comparative chicken. If the goal is Termination, strategy, support, and self-confidence are foundational no matter the behavior. In fact, I would argue making light of something unwanted is a defense mechanism. I know it is for me.
Yet another behavior to contemplate.
After one last joke: what did the blog writer say to the radium red, semi-sweet chocolate chunk muffin?