Relapses & Change

In the pursuit of health and fitness, we talk a lot about motivation and habits. We focus on the need for change, the importance of change, strategies to change – but we don’t talk as much about what happens when those strategies fail and we fall back on old behaviours.

Relapses are considered a failure. They’re viewed as a weakness, that we’re not strong enough to stick with the changes we’ve made or not committed enough to our programs and goals. As a result, relapses make us feel bad about ourselves. We feel weak, unmotivated and resentful of others who don’t seem to face the same challenges. And if we’re not careful, it’s a quick fall back to where we started.

But did you know that relapses are actually part of the cycle of behavioural change?*

The cycle of behavioural change outlines the various stages we go through when we’re trying to develop new habits.

Think of a habit you want to change: perhaps you want to quit smoking or eat more vegetables or workout every day. It’s important to understand where you are in that process, and what it will take to achieve the change you want to make.

A graphic illustration of the cycle of behavioural change.
The cycle of behavioural change. Relapses can occur at any point in the cycle.

What stage are you at?

Pre-contemplation: resisting change or in denial that change needs to be made.

Contemplation: thinking about change at some point in the near future.

Preparation: getting ready to change, setting goals and figuring out how to achieve them.

Action: getting started and working on the change.

Maintenance: change is achieved and the new behaviour or habit is developed and sustained.

Relapse: reverting to old behaviours or habits.

For every habit you are trying to change, you are in one of these stages. The ultimate goal is maintenance but along the way, we’re most likely going to end up in relapse at some point during the process.

And that’s OK.

Relapses are common. For me, they usually happen when my niece starts selling Girl Guide cookies or my mom sends me my annual birthday cherry cake. They’re part of the process of change, and if understood, can help us get to the maintenance stage where our new behaviour becomes a habit.

We relapse because we’ve hit a new road block. That’s it. Simple, right?

In the process of change, we understand the barriers that we face at the beginning. We know that in order to workout daily, we need to make time in our schedules. We need a gym membership or a workout buddy or a program to follow. We may need equipment or new shoes or a trainer.

These are barriers you might expect at the start of your change and so you figure out what you need to do to overcome them and get started on your daily workouts.

Let’s say you’ve been working out every day for several weeks. Things are going well, you’re feeling confident and are on your way to achieving the lifelong fitness you’ve always wanted.

But then perhaps you get injured. Maybe your dog gets sick and the vet bill means you can’t afford a gym membership anymore. Perhaps you get the flu and don’t feel up to working out for a few weeks. Maybe you plateau in your weight-loss program and get discouraged, or your workout buddy moves away and without them, you find it hard to motivate yourself to go to the gym.

These are new barriers. You didn’t expect them when you first started but they’ve come up along the way and could result in a relapse and return to your old behaviours. What do you do then?

When a relapse occurs, it’s important to take the time to figure out why. Reflect on what has been going well to this point and what hasn’t, and try to understand what you can do differently to prevent a relapse for the same reasons in the future. Just like you had to figure out strategies to get started, you will need to figure out how to overcome these new barriers. Once you do, you’ll be back on your road to the maintenance stage achieving the habit you want for yourself.

Relapses can occur at any point in the cycle of behavioural change. They may send you back to square one for a little bit but if you start trying to figure out what the new barriers are and how you can overcome them, you won’t stay there for long. Develop a new plan of action and start working on putting it into place. Soon you’ll reach or return to the maintenance stage and have a new habit to support your healthy living goals.

When things get tough, remember that healthy change is worth it.

* I am not a medical professional and am not speaking about behavioural change related to drugs or alcohol abuse.

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