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How to manage relapse or “falling off the wagon”.

If you're trying to make changes to your lifestyle, diet or exercise habits, you'll know how difficult it can be. There are many theories and models of the cycle of change but all communicate a very similar stages. During any changes to habit or routine, you will go through each stage in the cycle shown below (Prochaska and DiClemente, 1982). Consider any of the changes you have recently attempted to make and think about how the they fit in with the cycle.



At any point in this cycle you may fall out of it, also known as 'relapse' or 'falling off the wagon'. There are many reasons why you may not be able to keep to new habits and many ways of being able to prevent this.


It is important to be mindful that relapse might happen and it is a natural stage of the cycle of developing habits. When and if it does occur, there is nothing stopping you from getting straight back on to trying creating the habit again and even better as you will now know how to overcome an obstacle that might occur again.


After accepting relapse may happen, the next stages are either preventing it or resolving it when it occurs and then re-entering the cycle.  Below are some ways of how to overcome relapse:


  1. Pre-Plan – You might already know obstacles that could occur and be able to plan how to overcome these in advance. Putting steps in place in advance of relapse occurring will help you stay within the maintenance stage of the cycle of change.

  2. Implement coping mechanisms – If the relapse does occur and you don’t manage to continue with creating the habit you were trying to, find coping mechanisms that you can implement. Having things you can put in to place once the relapse has occurred will make entering the cycle of change easier next time and make it more likely that you will remain in the maintenance phase.

  3. Find the cause of relapse – Finding the cause can often be the key to preventing relapse. In fact, if relapse occurs, rather than it being a negative thing, it can actually be helpful because it will identify the cause for you and enable you to carry out suggestion (1) or (2). If you know exactly why you couldn’t stick to the habit initially you can then overcome this in the next cycle of implementing the habit.

  4. Find the motivation for change – Having something that motivates you will help you stay at the maintenance phase in the cycle of change. There will always be something that motivated you to attempt to make a change or consider making a change, regularly reminding yourself of the thing will help prevent relapse occurring.

  5. Find someone to be accountable to – Telling someone else your goals and what has motivated you to make change can help you stick with habits. Being accountable to only yourself sometimes isn’t enough to prevent relapse occurring. Also, alongside your own motivation, the person you have told may be able to provide motivation, remind you of why you wanted to change and of the goals you set for yourself.

Relapse can be your worst enemy whilst trying to make changes but is a normal part of the cycle. Knowing how to manage relapse and overcome it can help you make any habit stick permanently. If you would like any more information or specific advice on changes you are trying to make, feel free to comment or message me.

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