Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. Dr. Rebecca Williams, the co-author of a new book, The Gift of Recovery: 52 Mindful Ways to Live Joyfully Beyond Addiction, joins The Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross show to discuss the benefit of using mindfulness skills in healthy recovery from addictive behaviors. She talks about what mindfulness really is and why mindful principles are a fit in recovery from unwanted or addictive behaviors.
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Using Mindfulness In Recovery From Addictions And Eating Disorders with Dr. Rebecca Williams
I have a special guest, Dr. Rebecca Williams. She is an award-winning author and the leader in the field of wellness and recovery from mental illness and addiction. She received a Master’s degree in Counseling and Counseling Psychology from Harvard University and completed a PhD specializing in clinical psychology from the University of California Santa Barbara. Rebecca has a co-writer and their newest book is called The Gift of Recovery: 52 Mindful Ways to Live Joyfully Beyond Addiction. Welcome to the show, Rebecca.
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
You and I are in the same field. I’m assuming you’re in San Diego as well.
I just moved to Savannah, Georgia. I was in San Diego for 23 years and worked in a variety of settings in the VA hospital and other settings, private practice.
Let’s start by talking about how you got interested in using mindfulness and treating addictions.
I grew up in New York City and was surrounded by a lot of family members and other community people who were either addicted to drugs or alcohol or had a mental health challenge or both. In the back of my mind, I have always wanted to move my way into psychology and luckily, I was able to do that. Along the way, I realized psychology is a tough profession. I started practicing yoga many years ago and the combination of yoga, meditation as well as psychology helped guide me in my direction of trying to understand better how to get well from mental health challenges and also from addiction.
I don’t think most people would necessarily think of mindfulness if somebody has a mental illness like schizophrenia or something like that. Can you say a little bit more about how that works and how you applied mindful techniques in someone who may be seriously mentally ill?
First, let me read a good definition of mindfulness because people get scared about it and confused. This is the one I liked the best. There’s a ton out there. It’s really good and people maybe have put their toe in the water of mindfulness and meditation. Here’s what I like. Sylvia Boorstein is a Zen practitioner. She says that mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It’s not more complicated than that. She says it is opening to receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is without clinging to it or rejecting it. I liked that one because it just says, “Don’t be afraid. It’s not that complicated. Ease into your emotions and try not to cling to them or reject them.”Deciding to overcome an addiction can feel like leaving a relationship. It’s hard and sometimes lonely, but it is truly an act of courage. Click To Tweet
For example, if someone has schizophrenia and they’re hearing voices or seeing things or having hallucinations, how would you apply mindful to them?
At the hospital, there were quite a few different mindfulness classes going on and along with dialectical behavioral therapy classes going on to help with the extreme emotions. Even in schizophrenia, depression, anxiety or any mental illness, it helps to calm the mind down by breathing, taking a moment, being in the room with another person or group or a therapist and realizing their safety when you can calm down.
People are able to do that on that basic level.
It’s a start. There are other triggers that may be in conjunction, especially with schizophrenia. That’s a tough one or if you have a dual diagnosis. Certainly, anyone and everyone can benefit from reengaging with themselves. I always thought of psychosis and depression and anxiety as helpful tools and not something to completely run away from to make peace. I love your work on compassion and mindful eating. It’s in that same vein of being kinder to yourself.
I worked in a number of treatment centers where I’ve worked with addictions and eating disorders. I know nowadays mindfulness is a big buzzword. Everybody is talking about mindful treatment. Many people over complicate it or confuse it or they just bring in Yoga. They think, “We have yoga.” Yoga is helpful, but it’s not the entire story of mindfulness. It’s not the fuller version of mindfulness. When we talk about addictions, what is the role that you see mindfulness plays in treating addictions?
You do great work with addictions also. The way I looked at it is addictions, even if it’s a behavioral addiction like gambling, over shopping, overworking, any of the behavioral or substance-abuse addictions, it’s a way to numb feelings. Mindfulness is the opposite of that. Addiction will come down on you and numb all those intense feelings of anger, rage and frustration. Mindfulness is saying, “Let’s have the feeling. Don’t fight it. Let it move through like a leaf down a stream and realize that you’re okay. Everything is going to work out okay.” Even the triggers and all of the intensity of addiction can still have a piece where mindfulness is holding you a little bit so that you don’t overreact or impulsively do a behavior.
Many people with both mental illness and addictions have a history of trauma. Many people are afraid of sitting with their feelings or feeling fearful of having to go back and remember certain feelings or certain experiences. Will mindfulness help in that arena?
I listened to your show with Dr. Carolyn Allard, which was fantastic. You were talking about shame, guilt and trauma. Similar to what you guys talked about, it’s to understand shame and guilt. It’s the same thing here. Mindfulness is an ability to get back to yourself, to realize you were of value, to be kind to yourself and to not overreact to even your past. In Yoga and other things, they put the forefinger and the thumb together. That point in the middle is the present moment. Even if you’re in a room and you’re feeling overwhelmed, all you need to do is put your thumb and your first finger together and realize that point where it meets is the present moment. “Let me get back to the present moment.”
Your new book is a companion volume to the first book, The Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction. Is that correct?
That’s correct. It’s a companion. It’s like a pocket guide to The Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction.
The title says 52 Mindful Ways To Live Joyfully. First of all, can you give us some examples of a few of those 52 ways?
It’s funny when I was working with a publisher, I fought the word joyfully with “beyond addiction” because I was like, “I can’t put joyfully in there. That’s going to be too intense. People are going to look in the other direction.” When you think of addiction, you don’t think joy. Over time, I was able to relax into the actual subtitle of Live Joyfully Beyond The Addiction. The 52 weeks of the year is how we designed the book. Within each chapter, and you can pick up any chapter at any time, there are affirmations. There are seven affirmations per chapter. Literally every single day you can get yourself an example.
There’s a chapter called When Emotions Get Stuck, which is similar to what you talked about with Dr. Carolyn Allard about the heavy-duty emotions, the trauma, what do you do with that? How do you heal? A mindful way to think about getting unstuck from emotions is I focus my attention on being mentally, physically and spiritually well. If you start the day with that intention, that affirmation and you look at it on your phone throughout the day and maybe in the evening, you remind yourself, “My goal is to be well,” it starts to rewire the brain. You talk a lot about that as a doctor and as a scientist that there are ways to rewire the brain. Affirmations, repetition and positive habits are a great way to rewire the brain. One of the chapters I love is anger, my favorite. Everyone runs away from anger. I love anger.
I’m with you. I love anger because there’s so much richness in it. There’s so much benefit when people are able to get in touch with anger and move through it. It’s like a dark cloud clears.
It’s fantastic. I love sitting in a room with someone who’s angry. It’s my favorite thing. We have a whole chapter on soothing anger here, Chapter Eight. It talks about what you said. It’s to figure out that anger is an important tool. Harriet Lerner wrote The Dance of Anger.
She’s my favorite author. I still talk about her and refer patients to her book, The Dance of Anger.Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. Click To Tweet
That was the catalyst for me to understand and get calm with anger. She said anger is just a boundary that’s been crossed. I liked the way she said it. I do refer people to her books also, The Dance of Anger, The Dance of Intimacy. The way to think about anger is it’s a boundary being crossed for a person, whether it’s a spiritual boundary, a physical boundary, an emotional boundary or a moral boundary.
It can be a whole another book. I don’t think people understand much about boundaries other than how it’s the line in the sand. As I’ve been doing this work for longer and longer, I began to see that many boundaries have to do with your own moral values. When someone else crosses your moral value, it can cause you to feel betrayed because you may have thought that they were on the same wavelength as you are or that they had the same values as you are. We see that in our country a lot where there’s a clash of values that’s surprising. We all think, “We’re all Americans. We should all feel the same way.” Different groups have different values. When those boundaries are crossed, it can make the other group or the other individual in an intimate relationship feel angry or betrayed.
Many times the reason people use drugs or drink is the rage and the anger, especially like you said with what’s going on now.
You don’t always understand why they’re angry. That’s what I was trying to get to is you have this reaction and you may not take the time to understand, “That person may not have meant to harm me, they may just have a completely different set of values than I do.”
How do you stay well with that information? In other words, how do you maintain wellness and move to the next level of being well because resilience is everything? If you don’t feel you’re able to recover from being angry and you push it aside or push it under the rug and use drugs or alcohol or overeating or whatever it may be, it’s a cycle. It’s a constant struggle.
It also leads you to the next place because if you never resolved this one, when you get to another place, you still haven’t understood what happened. It piles betrayal upon betrayal upon betrayal. How do you deal with that? How do you help your clients deal with that when it’s someone within their own family, for example?
You probably see this too. If somebody in your family is doing some bad behavior or they didn’t show up, you start resenting them. Resentment is when someone didn’t show up, that’s the way I look at it. I try to keep everything very simple. If you’re carrying around a lot of resentment, it’s heavy. As someone who specializes in eating disorders, it’s physically heavy. It’s literally heavy. I’m in Savannah and I have a slower pace of life. Now, I can think about these things. The point is forgiveness, self-forgiveness and forgiveness of the other person. I know that sounds lofty, but that’s all we have. First, forgive yourself for your reactions and how you’re feeling about these. Your feeling is normal. Begin the process of forgiving the other family member and the other friend or person who did not show up for you.
I agree. Forgiveness is the ultimate goal, but often it takes what the Buddhist called radical acceptance. If someone has a different value system than you do, whether they grew up in the same home or not, or even if it’s a close friend, that value system is not going to change. In some ways you can’t forgive until you can get to the place where you can accept that they’re not going to change their value system and you’re not going to change your value system. How do you continue to move forward in relationship when you’re going to rub up against that value difference on a regular basis? It’s not going to go away.
I feel calm talking to you right now about this. This is a very powerful topic, but it’s landing me in a very calm place because there’s going to be times when you’re not going to be around other people. There’s going to be times when you may need to let go of someone or you may need to bring someone else into your world of friends and family because there are times when you need to take breaks. That’s a very healthy thing to do even within a family even if you have a child, for example, a teenager who’s musing or you have an adult child who’s incarcerated or whatever the situation is.
Even if someone is mentally ill in your family and they’re acting out from their illness. I love what you’re saying about taking a break because in my family, we have a fair amount of addictions and mental illness. When I started working in this field, at some point working with the ACE, the Adverse Childhood Experiences, I did a family tree and realized, “There’s so much trauma in my family, both ancestral trauma and also trauma in people’s lifetimes.” Looking at the spill out of that being addictions, mental illness or eating disorders, what I was going to say is when you have someone in your family either with an addiction or with mental illness, you may be trying to help them. I remember when I was younger, my mom would always come to me and say, “You need to help them.” You’re trying to help them and that starts to disrupt your life because they’re mentally ill and they’re sick. It can affect your life to a great degree. I love the point that you may get to a place where you have to say, “I need to take a break from this,” and that’s okay.
You take a break to refocus on yourself and get well again because everyone goes through ups and downs of being well, whether you’re eating right or sleeping or you exercise, but just recommit. If you have agreements with yourself, follow through with those agreements that you’re saying, “I’m going to go work out. I’m going to sleep and go to bed earlier,” whatever it is. It’s simple things. The book talks about how to do simple things, like to stop drinking sodas, things to get you well again and you can make a decision whether you want to put a toe back in the water of a family member who’s got mental illness or addiction.
For the person with addiction, often boundaries are very porous. They too allow people to come into their lives who harm them while they’re in their addiction. I see a lot of young patients who are in the addiction and they’re being taken advantage of too because they’re in a vulnerable state. We started this part of the conversation by talking about how boundaries are much more complicated than drawing a line in the sand. This is important from the person with addiction’s point of view and the family members even if you don’t have an addiction.
I was up against the struggle over helping myself with family members who were either mentally ill or had addiction problems. I had to look at my own stuff and say, “What’s going on with you that you’re over helping and you’re throwing everything at it? I had to lean back, take care of myself and begin under helping, which worked out great. It’s tricky because if someone’s struggling, the first thing you want to do is throw a blanket of everything on them. Maybe there’s a pathway that the person has to go through.
That’s important. What I always say is everybody’s life is their own journey. We don’t know why their journey is taking them this way or that way, or into addiction or into mental illness, but it is their journey. We can’t always take them off their journey because we want to. Part of being in the helping professions is that we don’t do our own work and we don’t stop to ask ourselves what is it that we’re getting out of over helping? I’ve worked with so many people who are codependent and they feel like, “Being kind, being a helper is a good thing.” Yes, it is, but it can also be a bad thing if you’re not aware of what you’re doing and you’re overdoing it to your own detriment.
For me, I was over helping, which was an avoidance of giving up my own savings. Over helping is procrastination in my viewpoint.
There’s your simplification. We need to make a list of these. This is your new book. Procrastination is a distraction from dealing with our own stuff. Eventually, you will have to deal with it. At some point in everybody’s life, they have a come to Jesus moment where you have to face up to what’s going on in your life, but as humans, it’s amazing. We will do the most intricate things to avoid dealing with situations. It’s funny. Is there another part of your book besides the anger chapter that you love?Over-helping is procrastination. Click To Tweet
What got me to this point is that first book, Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction. What I was not finding in the literature when I was working with addictions was the idea of loss. There’s no book. When you go to the back to figure out what is this author talking about loss, I felt that with addictions, people were not talking about the losses that they were having in their lives, their prior losses. Addiction also created additional losses. If you started using based on grief, you had more losses. You’ve lost your freedom by going to jail or prison. You lost your friends or lost all sorts of stuff. I noticed it was an intense cycle of loss, addiction, loss, addiction. That propelled me to try to continue to add loss, understanding loss and grief into the first book, Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction and also to give the recovery ways to manage them.
That’s super important. You didn’t mention, but we also see people in addictions lose friends who they’ve been using with who died from overdoses. They also lose friends and family members who don’t want to be around them in their addiction. I’ve seen patients who’ve been into multiple treatment centers and no one has ever helped them deal with their grief and loss of maybe their best friend who got into drugs with them and died of an overdose. There’s guilt, shame, grief and all of that. It’s a complicated form of loss. That’s very important. Let’s see a copy of your book because I know you have it there, The Gift of Recovery: 52 Mindful Ways to Live Joyfully Beyond Addiction. Can people get that at bookstores and on Amazon?
Yes, on Amazon or bookstores. I have a website, MindfulnessWorkbook.com where you can look at what’s on the inside of the book a little bit. You can even get CEUs for this book and for the other book if you’re a therapist, a practitioner that you need CEUs. I’ve got here this book because there’s a lot of good stuff in here. There are all sorts of ways to be well including decluttering your space, exercise and things that would probably focus a lot on two other books.
If you’re a practitioner, it would be useful for you personally probably. I’m thinking for me personally because we struggle with the same kinds of things, maybe different types of addiction like workaholism or over helping or being addicted to stress or chaos, but it’s the same thing. Mindfulness is the answer to all of that, being present. It totally talks about being in the now. It’s all there is.
I have a little stone on my desk that says, “Breath.” It’s a reminder to keep in a moment and breath if you get stuck.
It’s been so fun having you on, Rebecca. Thank you so much for sharing this important information.
Thank you so much.
I encourage people to check out her work.
Thank you so much.
I’ll talk to you soon then.
- Dr. Rebecca Williams
- The Gift of Recovery: 52 Mindful Ways to Live Joyfully Beyond Addiction
- Dr. Carolyn Allard – Past episode
- The Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction
- The Dance of Anger
- The Dance of Intimacy
About Dr. Rebecca Williams
Dr. Rebecca Williams is an award-winning author, consultant, and Clinical Psychologist specializing in healthy recovery from mental illness and addiction. For the past 20 years, her work has focused on building resilience and embracing well-being. Rebecca has been an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and a program director at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System.
Along with licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Julie Kraft, Rebecca is coauthor of The Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction: A Guide to Coping with the Grief, Stress, and Anger that Trigger Addictive Behaviors and their most recent book The Gift of Recovery: 52 Mindful Ways to Live Joyfully Beyond Addiction.